Norma Urbario, left, and America Rodriguez hold their resumes as...

Norma Urbario, left, and America Rodriguez hold their resumes as they stand in line at a job fair that the Miami Marlins hosted at Marlins Park in Miami. (Jan. 15, 2012) Credit: AP

The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid fell 22,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 344,000, evidence that the job market may be picking up. The four-week average of applications dropped 6,750 to 355,000, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Economists were mildly encouraged by the decline. It "suggests further healing in the labor markets," Sal Guatieri, an economist at BMO Capital Markets, said in a note to clients.

Stronger hiring is one of the reasons economists expect growth is probably picking up in 2013 after a disappointing October-December quarter, when the economy barely grew.

Weekly applications are a proxy for layoffs. When they decline, it suggests companies are cutting fewer workers and may be more willing to hire.

Applications have fallen steadily in recent weeks. The four-week average has declined almost 11 percent since November. At the same time, employers have added an average of 200,000 jobs per month from November through January. That's up from about 150,000 in the previous three months.

Economists think the unemployment rate will slowly decline if hiring continues at last year's monthly pace of 180,000. The outlook for the U.S. economy also brightened this week after reports showed Americans are more confident and are buying more new homes, suggesting the economy is resilient enough to withstand automatic spending cuts set to kick in Friday.

Latest Videos