updated 12/20/2007 8:56:51 AM ET 2007-12-20T13:56:51

More people signed up for unemployment benefits last week, suggesting that the job market is softening as the economy loses speed.

The Labor Department reported Thursday that new applications filed for jobless benefits rose by a seasonally adjusted 12,000 to 346,000. It was a larger increase than economists were expecting. They were forecasting claims to rise to 335,000 last week.

The four-week moving average of new claims for unemployment benefits rose by 4,250 to 343,000 last week, the highest level in two years.

Economic growth in the October-to-December quarter is expected to slow to a near crawl — a pace of just 1.5 percent or less, according to economists' projections. The nation's unemployment rate, now at 4.7 percent, is expected to climb to 5 percent by early next year.

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