By Anna Louie Sussman

WASHINGTON -- The number of Americans applying for first-time unemployment benefits plunged to a multidecade low last week, a sign of continued strength in the U.S. labor market.

Initial jobless claims, a proxy for layoffs, dropped 19,000 in the week ended Nov. 12 to a seasonally adjusted 235,000, the lowest level since November 1973, the Labor Department said Thursday. Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal had expected 255,000 new claims.

Rob Martin, an economist at Barclays Bank PLC, said the data points "to a pickup in employment growth relative to the past several months," when job gains have been steady if unspectacular.

"On the whole, we view incoming claims data as very supportive of further improvementin labor market conditions this year," Mr. Martin said in a note to clients.

Jobless claims for the week ended Nov. 5 were left unrevised at 254,000.

Initial claims have remained below 300,000 for 89 straight weeks, the longest such streak since 1970 -- when the workforce and U.S. population were far smaller than they are today.

But low claims figures don't necessarily correlate with explosive employment growth. Since 2014, when monthly job gains averaged above 250,000, the pace has slowed to an average of 181,000 so far this year, even as claims have hovered near historic lows.

"Jobless claims have not been a useful indicator of payroll gains for about the past two years," noted Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at MFR, Inc.

Still, data on unemployment-benefit applications can be volatile from week to week. The four-week moving average for initial claims fell last week by 6,500 to 253,500.

The Labor Department said no special factors affected the latest claims data.

The broader U.S. job market has continued to add jobs, albeit at a slowing pace. Nonfarm employers added 161,000 jobs in October and the unemployment rate ticked down to 4.9%, while average hourly earnings for private-sector workers rose at the fastest year-over-year pace since the recession, the Labor Department reported in early November.

This is the first estimate of jobless claims to follow the Nov. 8 presidential election.

Thursday's report showed continuing unemployment claims, drawn by workers for longer than a week, fell by 66,000 to 1,977,000 to the lowest level since April 2000 in the week ended Nov. 5. The continuing-claims data are released with a one-week lag.

The four-week moving average for continuing claims fell to 2,022,500, the lowest level since June 2000. The Labor Department's report on jobless claimscan be accessed at http://www.dol.gov/ui/data.pdf

Write to Anna Louie Sussman at anna.sussman@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 17, 2016 11:30 ET (16:30 GMT)

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