WASHINGTON — A resurgent U.S. job market that has lifted the economy appears to be enduring. Factories in the Northeast kept hiring in early March. And the number of people applying for unemployment aid fell back to a four-year low.
The economy is adding jobs at a time when inflation remains relatively mild outside of gas prices.
The upbeat government reports Thursday reinforced the message sent by last week's encouraging job figures for February.
Good economic news drove stocks higher, too. The Standard & Poor's 500 index closed above 1,400 for the first time since June 2008. The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished higher for the seventh straight session and had its highest close since the last day of 2007.
Applications for unemployment aid dropped to a seasonally adjusted 351,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. That matched a four-year low reached last month. The four-week average, which smooths fluctuations, was unchanged at 355,750, also a four-year low.
Applications have declined 14 percent since October. When applications drop consistently below 375,000, it usually signals that hiring is strong enough to lower the unemployment rate.
The steady decline has coincided with the best three months of hiring in two years. From December through February, employers added an average of 245,000 jobs a month. The unemployment rate has fallen to 8.3 percent, the lowest in three years.
The figures "indicate that the labor market is steadily, if slowly, improving," said Steven Wood, an economist at Insight Economics. "Another month of 200,000-plus payroll employment in March is likely."
The job market has a long way to go to fully recover from the Great Recession. More than 12.8 million people remain unemployed. And the economy still has 5 million fewer jobs than before the downturn.
Factories have played a leading role reviving job growth. The Labor Department reported last week that manufacturing jobs grew by 31,000 in February. Over the past year, manufacturing has added 227,000 net jobs.
Rising auto sales and increasing demand for heavy equipment, such as mining and agricultural machinery, have kept factories busy.
Rising gas costs drove U.S. wholesale prices up last month, according to a separate Labor Department report. But excluding the big jump in gas, inflation was mostly tame.
In the past 12 months, wholesale prices have increased 3.3 percent. That's the smallest year-over-year gain since August 2010.
The report "suggests that inflationary pressures are still contained," Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics, said in a note to clients. "More evidence that the U.S. economy could finally be on the right track."