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The unemployment line is getting shorter

Claims at lowest level in more than three years

WASHINGTON – The job market is healthier than at any time since the end of the Great Recession.

The number of people filing for unemployment benefits fell last week to the lowest since May 2008, a sign that the waves of corporate layoffs that have defined the past few years are all but over.

“This is unexpectedly great news,” said Ian Shepherdson, an economist at High Frequency Economics.

It will take an additional step – robust hiring, not just the end of layoffs – to bring the 8.6 percent unemployment rate down significantly. Experts say that won’t happen until businesses are more confident about customer demand.

But the report on unemployment claims Thursday was the latest to suggest that the economy may finally be picking up momentum.

The nation added 100,000 or more jobs every month from July through November, the first five-month streak since 2006. And the economy, which was barely growing when the year started, has picked up speed each quarter.

More small businesses plan to hire than at any time in three years, a trade group said this week. And another private-sector survey found more companies are planning to add workers than at any time since 2008.

The number of people applying for unemployment benefits came in at 366,000, down from 385,000 the week before.

Unemployment claims are a measure of the pace of layoffs, and they have declined steadily for three months.

But that’s just part of the picture. Business aren’t hiring with gusto. Unemployment fell 0.4 percentage points last month, but about half the decline was because people gave up looking for work.

“One of the features of this recovery is that hiring is exceptionally weak,” said Jeremy Lawson, senior U.S. economist at BNP Paribas.

And weaker-than-usual hiring doesn’t necessarily show up in unemployment claims. Many employers cut staffs to the bone during the recession. If they worry that business will grow weakly next year, they may hold off on layoffs – but not hire, either.