msnbc.com news services
updated 3/24/2011 10:55:48 AM ET 2011-03-24T14:55:48

Fewer Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, suggesting the labor market healing is becoming entrenched and employers may be stepping up hiring.

The Labor Department says the number of people seeking benefits dropped 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 382,000 in the week ended March 19, the fourth drop in the past five weeks. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell to 385,250, the lowest since July 2008.

Applications have dropped steadily since late January. The four-week average has dropped almost 11 percent in the past seven weeks.

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Applications need to fall consistently to about 375,000 or below to indicate a sustained increase in hiring. Applications peaked during the recession at 651,000. Weekly applications for unemployment benefits are considered a gauge of the pace of layoffs.

Separately Thursday, the Commerce Department released February durable goods orders data, which showed companies trimmed their orders for long-lasting manufactured goods, signaling business investment falling for a second month.

The government said that businesses reduced orders for durable goods 0.9 percent last month, the fourth decline in the past five months. Weakness was seen in a number of categories from heavy machinery and computers to primary metals such as steel.

Story: Sales of new homes plunge to record low

Even with the February decline, durable goods orders were 24.6 percent above the recession low hit in March 2009. Manufacturing has been a source of strength in this recovery. Economists expect that to continue with factories getting a boost from rising consumer demand and a new tax cut aimed at spurring business investment.

The Federal Reserve has acknowledged the improvement in labor market conditions and is generally expected to conclude its $600 billion government bond buying program at the end of June.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Weekly jobless claims drop down to 08' levels

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