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Nov 20, 11:31 AM EST

US unemployment aid applications fall to 291,000

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of people applying for U.S. unemployment benefits declined slightly last week, suggesting that job gains should remain solid.

Weekly applications for jobless aid fell 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 291,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose 1,750 to 287,500.

Employers are laying off fewer workers and have stepped up hiring this year. The weekly applications are a proxy for layoffs, and have fallen 16 percent in the past 12 months. They are close to the lowest levels since 2000, a sign companies are more confident in the economy and willing to hold onto their staffs.

"These job stats continue to look good," said Jennifer Lee, an economist with BMO Capital Markets.

The number of people receiving aid has also fallen steadily, and now stands at 2.33 million, the lowest since December 2000. Yet there are still 9 million people unemployed. Almost one-third have been out of work for six months or longer and are no longer eligible for unemployment benefits. And many others out of work are recent college graduates or people who have recently started looking for jobs but weren't laid off. Only those who have been recently laid off are eligible for aid.

The economy has picked up this year, growing at an annual pace of about 4 percent in the past six months. That has led to more hiring: Employers have added an average of 229,000 jobs a month this year, putting 2014 on pace to be strongest year for hiring since 1999. That's up from an average of 194,000 jobs a month last year.

The steady job gains have helped push the unemployment rate down to 5.8 percent, a six-year low.

Still, the scars of the Great Recession haven't fully healed. There are more than 7 million Americans working part-time jobs but who would prefer full-time work. That compares with 4.6 million before the recession. And there are still 2 million fewer Americans working full-time jobs than before the downturn.

The increased hiring has also yet to push up wages much, limiting the broader growth of the U.S. economy. Average hourly pay rose 3 cents in October to $24.57. That's just 2 percent above the average wage 12 months earlier and barely ahead of a 1.7 percent inflation rate.

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