The number of people seeking unemployment benefits rose last week for the first time in a month. 

But a measure of applications over the past month fell to a three-and-a-half-year low, an indication that hiring could pick up. 

The Labor Department says weekly applications rose 15,000 to a seasonally adjusted 381,000. 

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell for the fourth straight week to 375,000 -- the lowest level since June 2008. 

Applications generally must fall below 375,000 -- consistently -- to signal that hiring is strong enough to reduce the unemployment rate. 

Unemployment benefit applications are a measure of the pace of layoffs. Applications have plummeted in the past month, indicating that job cuts have fallen sharply. Still, many companies have been slow to boost hiring.