WASHINGTON — The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell last week to a seasonally adjusted 339,000, the second-fewest in more than five years. The drop suggests layoffs have declined and job growth may pick up from last month’s sluggish pace.
Applications for benefits dropped by 16,000, the Labor Department said. The four-week average fell 4,500 to 357,500.
Most economists were encouraged by Thursday’s report, though some cautioned against reading too much into one week’s worth of data.
‘‘The downtrend in unemployment remains on track,’’ said Jim O’Sullivan, chief US economist at High Frequency Economics.
In March, employers added only 88,000 jobs. That was a sharp drop from the previous four months, when hiring averaged 220,000 per month.
The US unemployment rate fell to a four-year low of 7.6 percent from 7.7 percent in February. But the drop occurred because more people out of work stopped looking for jobs. Most economists expect hiring to improve this month from March’s low level.