Applications for US jobless aid likely ticked up last week but would remain at healthy level

MarketsAssociated Press

The U.S. Labor Department reports on the number of people who applied for unemployment benefits last week. The report will be released Thursday at 8:30 a.m. Eastern.

TINY INCREASE: Economists forecast that weekly applications moved up 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 290,000, according to a survey by FactSet. Even so, that would be the fifth straight week of claims below 300,000, a clear sign of an improving job market.

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Weekly applications are a proxy for layoffs. They have fallen nearly 10 percent over the past 12 months. That suggests employers are keeping their workers and may be ready to add more people to their payrolls.

Still, it's not clear that another healthy report on unemployment benefits will be enough to assuage investors' concerns about U.S. and global growth.

U.S. retail sales fell last month, the government said Wednesday, contributing to a 173 point drop in the Dow Jones industrial average. The Dow plunged 460 points earlier in the day before recovering, but futures tumbled sharply Thursday about two hours before the opening bell.

US JOB MARKET A BRIGHT SPOT: Consumers have remained cautious about spending even as employers have stepped up hiring.

Employers added 248,000 jobs last month and hiring in the previous two months was healthier than previously believed, the government said earlier this month. That helped push down the unemployment rate down to 5.9 percent, a six-year low.

The economy has added 2.64 million jobs in the past 12 months, the best annual showing since April 2006.

The number of available jobs soared to a 13-year high in August, according to a separate government report. That suggests employers will keep adding jobs at a healthy clip in the coming months.

Still, companies have been wary about filling positions, frustrating many job-seekers. Some employers say they can't find workers with the right skills. Many economists, however, say that firms may not be offering high enough pay to attract qualified applicants.

Despite the improved hiring, the job market is still scarred from the recession. More than 7 million people hold part-time jobs but want full-time work, up from 4.6 million before the downturn. And there are still twice as many people unemployed for longer than six months as there were before the recession, even though that figure has steadily declined in the past three years.