The number of Americans filing for jobless benefits dropped to its lowest level in four years last week, the government reported Thursday, adding to a growing sense among economists that job creation is continuing at a healthy clip.

Jobless claims fell to 357,000 in the week ended March 31, the lowest number since April 2008.

The report comes a day before the Labor Department releases its monthly snapshot of the nation’s job market, which economists expect to show an increase of 205,000 jobs in March.

If that prediction holds, it would reflect a continued surge in hiring that has contributed to a sharp drop in the nation’s unemployment rate since late last summer. The jobless rate has fallen from 9.1 percent in August to 8.3 percent in February.

“I think we are going to continue that positive climb,” said Rich Milgram, chief executive officer of, a career-networking firm.“We are seeing slow and steady growth and that is a good thing. Things are looking up.”

Milgram said he would not be surprised if the nation’s unemployment rate declines a notch. Still, most economists forecast that despite the expected growth in new jobs, the unemployment rate will remain unchanged for the second straight month as more people return to the improving job market.

Despite the good news, many economists caution that continued deep declines in the unemployment rate will require more robust economic growth.

“Further significant improvements in the unemployment rate will likely require a more rapid expansion of production and demand from consumers and businesses,” Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke told the National Association for Business Economics last week.

That sentiment was echoed in a blog post Thursday by Josh Bivens, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. “If we want the unemployment rate to continue falling at the same rate that characterized the past year-and-a-half, we better see much faster GDP growth,” Bivens wrote.

Those concerns notwithstanding, many analysts think the economy has hit a period where growth should be self-sustaining. Stock prices have risen nearly 25 percent in the past six months. Consumer confidence is rising, as are consumer spending, manufacturing output and new car sales. Sales at chain retail stores were up 4.1 percent in March, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a better-than-expected showing that analysts said was aided by unusually warm winter weather.

A report released Thursday by the Conference Board found that chief executives are increasingly upbeat in their economic outlook. Two out of every three CEOs responding to the board’s survey say conditions have improved compared to six months ago, up from just 17 percent three months ago.

“CEOs’ confidence has rebounded from rather dismal readings in the latter half of 2011. Looking ahead, chief executives are optimistic about growth prospects, with about the same percentage as last year expecting to hire new workers,” Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board Consumer Research Center, said in a statement.

NA (The Washington Post/Source: Labor Department)

Half of all chief executives anticipate an increase in employment levels in their respective industries, about the same as a year ago. The proportion of chief executives who anticipate a decrease in hiring declined slightly to 15 percent from 16 percent a year ago.