Published: May 13, 2010 2:05 PM EDT

WASHINGTON (AP) - New claims for unemployment benefits dipped

for the fourth straight week, a sign the job market is improving at

a glacial pace.

Employers, encouraged by a recovering economy, are starting to

hire again. But so far the pace hasn't been fast enough to reduce

the jobless rate.

The Labor Department said Thursday that initial claims dropped

last week by 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 444,000. That's

slightly above analysts' estimates, according to Thomson Reuters.

The previous week's total was revised up to 448,000.

The four-week average, which smooths out volatility, registered

a steeper decline. It fell by 9,000 to 450,500 - close to the

average's lowest level this year reached in late March.

After dropping steadily last year from a peak of 651,000,

first-time claims have fluctuated at around 450,000 since January.

Many economists believe claims need to fall below 425,000 to

signal sustained job creation.

Other recent indicators have shown improvement in the job

market. Employers added 290,000 jobs in April, the most in four

years. That's a positive sign that companies are confident enough

in the economic recovery to step up hiring.

But much more hiring is needed to make up for the loss of more

than 8 million jobs in the recession. The unemployment rate rose

last month to 9.9 percent as the new jobs weren't enough to offset

the more than 800,000 people that started or resumed job searches.

The economy expanded at a 3.2 percent pace in the

January-to-March quarter, the third straight quarter of growth.

That followed four quarters of decline as the economy struggled

through the worst downturn since the 1930s.

The number of people continuing to receive benefits, meanwhile,

rose by 12,000 to 4.6 million. The data on continuing unemployment

claims lags initial claims by one week.

But that doesn't include the 5.4 million people receiving

extended benefits paid for by the federal government in the week

ending April 24, the latest data available. That total is down by

about 200,000 from the previous week.

The extended federal benefits have added as many as 73 weeks of

unemployment on top of the 26 customarily provided by the states.

But jobs have been scarce for so long that many of those out of

work will soon run out of those extended benefits.