02/05/2015 03:38 EST | Updated 04/07/2015 01:59 EDT

US applications for unemployment aid rise to 278,000; averages still indicate robust hiring

WASHINGTON - More people sought unemployment benefits last week, but the number of applicants remained near historic lows in a positive sign for job growth.

The Labor Department said Thursday that weekly applications rose 11,000 to a seasonally adjusted 278,000. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell 6,500 to 292,750. That average has plunged 15 per cent over the past 12 months.

"The trend still shows improving labour market behaviour," said Jennifer Lee, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.

The weekly increase comes after applications plummeted 42,000 in the prior week to 267,000. There has been volatility in recent reports due to the end of the holiday shopping season and the recent Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, when state unemployment offices were closed. The government tries to adjust for such seasonal patterns, but isn't always able to do so perfectly.

Weekly applications are a proxy for layoffs. The decline indicates that companies are keeping their workers and potentially looking to hire on the expectation that the economy will continue growing.

The Friday employment report is expected to show that employers added 230,000 jobs in January, according to a survey by the data firm FactSet.

Nearly 3 million new jobs were created in 2014, as the unemployment rate dropped to 5.6 per cent from 6.7 per cent.

But the increased demand for workers has yet to boost incomes by much. Average wages rose just 1.7 per cent in 2014, essentially in line with inflation. Wage growth of 3.5 per cent is consistent with a healthy economy.