The ranks of Americans lining up to claim an initial week of jobless benefits (search) inched up by 4,000 last week, the government said on Thursday in an as-expected report that suggested stability in the pace of layoffs.

First-time applications for state unemployment aid (search) came in at 345,000 in the week ended July 24, up from a revised 341,000 in the prior week, the Labor Department (search) said.

The level of claims was only a touch above market expectations. Analysts polled by Reuters forecast claims to rise to 340,000 from the 339,000 initially reported for the week ended July 17.

U.S. job growth picked up earlier this year after a long drought and claims remain at levels economists consider consistent with further gains.

The closely watched four-week moving average, which smoothes week-to-week volatility to provide a better view of trends, slipped 1,000 to 336,250 from an upwardly revised 337,250.

The number of people remaining on the benefit rolls after claiming an initial week of aid climbed 174,000 to 2.96 million in the week ended July 17, the latest for which figures are available.

The increase in so-called continued claims marked a bounceback from a decline that had been pinned on the timing of annual auto plant shutdowns. The department had said the process by which it adjusts the data for seasonal fluctuations had been thrown off by a change in when the plants shut down for retooling.