The number of new people signing up for unemployment benefits last week declined for the first time in a month, an encouraging sign that the jobs market may be gaining traction.

The Labor Department (search) reported Thursday that new applications filed for unemployment insurance (search) dropped by a seasonally adjusted 10,000 to 318,000 for the week ending March 12. The level of 318,000 was the lowest since late February.

The last time new filings for jobless benefits fell was for the week ending Feb. 12, when they dipped by 1,000.

The 318,000 level of claims — while slightly higher than the 315,000 that some econg labor market. A year ago, new claims stood at 333,000.

The economy added 262,000 jobs in February, the most since October. That information contained in an employment report released earlier this month raised hopes that the labor market may be picking up some decent momentum.

With the economy and the labor market showing improvements, economists predict the Federal Reserve (search) will bump up short-term interest rates by one-quarter percentage point when it meets next on March 22. Since June 2004, the Fed has boosted rates six times, each in modest, quarter-point increments.

Thursday's report also showed that the four-week moving average of new jobless claims, which smooths out week-to-week fluctuations, edged up last week to 316,500.

Even with the increase, the level of claims still suggested a job market on the mend. A year ago, the four-week moving average of claims stood at 342,000.

The number of people continuing to collect jobless benefits, meanwhile, plunged by 48,000 to 2.65 million for the week ending March 5, the most recent period for which that information is available. That marked the lowest level since the beginning of this year. A year ago, this figure clocked in at 3.1 million.