The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications for unemployment aid rose 10,000 to a seasonally adjusted 383,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, increased for the first time in a month to 374,500.
Applications had leveled off at about 370,000 for four weeks. That decline suggested that hiring could pick up in May. When applications drop below 375,000, it typically suggests that hiring is strong enough to reduce the unemployment rate.
Thursday's figures don't figure into the May employment report, to be released Friday. That report is based on figures gathered in the middle of the month. Analysts expect it will show that employers added 158,000 jobs, while the unemployment rate remained 8.1 percent.
The unemployment rate has fallen from 9.1 percent in August to 8.1 percent last month. Part of the reason for the drop is that employers added 1.5 million jobs during that time. But it has also declined because some people gave up looking for work. The government counts people as unemployed only if they're actively looking for a job.
Hiring soared this winter to an average of 252,000 jobs each month from December through February. But the pace slowed in March and April to an average of 135,000 jobs a month. That raised fears that the job market could be weakening.
Economists have cautioned that a warm winter led companies to move up some hiring and accelerate other activity that normally wouldn't occur until spring. That gave the appearance that the economy had strengthened in January and February and weakened in early spring.
Recent economic indicators, meanwhile, have been mixed.
Consumer confidence fell sharply in May to its lowest level since January, the Conference Board said Tuesday. Americans were more worried about jobs, housing and the stock market. Lower confidence could lead consumers to cut back on their spending.