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Washington (AFP) – New claims for US unemployment benefits dropped last week, remaining near their lowest level in 45 years as employers struggle to fill open positions, according to government data released Thursday.

Though the weekly figures are volatile, the data is consistent with reports from the Federal Reserve and business groups indicating the supply of available workers is drying up as the unemployment rate reaches historic lows.

The result also pointed to another strong month of job creation in February as the data were collected during the survey week for the Labor Department’s closely-watched monthly employment report which will be released March 9.

For the week ended February 17, new jobless claims fell by 7,000 from the prior week to 222,000, close to the 45-year low of 216,000 recorded in the middle of last month.

The result undershot a consensus forecast, which called for an increase to 233,000 claims for the week.

The less volatile four-week moving average also fell 2,250 to 226,000.

Though the numbers can see big swings from week to week, the claims data can be used to gauge the strength of jobs markets. With mounting signs of a widespread labor shortage, employers have reduced layoffs to record low levels partly out of fear they may not be able to replace the workers they let go.

Jobless claims have remained below 300,000 for nearly three years, the longest streak since 1972. But analysts say the current low trend is likely the lowest ever, given changes in the size of the population and labor force.

The Fed is widely expected to raise the benchmark interest rate next month for the first time this year, and most economists now expect four rate hikes in 2018.

Fear of raising rates has sparked volatile movements on Wall Street, with investors moved to sell on fears of inflation and rising interest rates.

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