The number of new claims for U.S. jobless benefits (search) climbed more than expected to 312,000 last week, government data showed on Thursday, while a more reliable job market gauge fell to its lowest level in more than four years.

Initial claims (search) for state unemployment insurance rose by 9,000 in the week ended Feb. 19, from an upwardly revised 303,000 the prior week, the Labor Department (search) said.

The number of claims came in well above the 305,000 Wall Street economists had forecast.

A Labor Department analyst said there were no special factors behind the rise in fresh claims.

The closely watched four-week moving average, regarded by economists as a more accurate barometer of labor market trends because it smoothes out weekly volatility, fell for the second straight week, dropping to 308,750 from 312,000 the week before. This marked its lowest level since the week of November 4, 2000, when the U.S. economy was expanding solidly.

In a sign the pace of hiring may have picked up, the number of people still on state benefit rolls after claiming one week of unemployment fell for the second week in a row, dropping 62,000 to 2.65 million in the week ended Feb. 12, the latest period for which the figures are available.