Reports hold hope for U.S. hiring gains

The U.S. Labor Department said Thursday that weekly

The U.S. Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications fell 18,000, the second straight sharp drop. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, dropped 16,000 to 342,250, close to a five-year low. These men were at a job fair in Philadelphia earlier this year. (Feb. 26, 2013) (Credit: AP)

A string of economic data Thursday raised hopes for stronger hiring and U.S. growth in coming months.

The data show fewer people are losing their jobs. Employers are struggling to squeeze more work from their staffs. The U.S. is producing so much oil that imports are plunging, narrowing the trade deficit.

More jobs would spur spending and help energize the economy, which has yet to regain full health nearly four years after the recession officially ended.

April jobs data will be released Friday. Economists think the gain will exceed the 88,000 jobs added in March.

The government said Thursday that the number of Americans applying for unemployment aid fell last week to a seasonally adjusted 324,000 -- the fewest since January 2008.

Unemployment applications reflect the pace of layoffs: A steady drop means companies are shedding fewer workers. Eventually, they'll need to hire to meet customer demand or to replace workers who quit.

The government also said Thursday that the productivity of U.S. workers barely grew from January through March after shrinking in the last three months of 2012. Productivity shows how much employees produce per hour of work. When it remains weak, employers can't keep pulling more output from their staffs. As customer demand strengthens, they'll need to hire.

Productivity grew at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 0.7 percent in the January-March quarter.

At the same time, the government said the U.S. trade deficit narrowed in March for a second month. The main reason: The daily flow of imported crude oil reached a 17-year low.

The trade gap shows how much the value of imports exceeds the value of exports. A smaller trade gap is good for economic growth because it means America is exporting more while spending less on foreign goods.

The gap shrank 11 percent from February to $38.8 billion.

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