NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The number of Americans filing for their first week of unemployment benefits fell last week, pointing to slight improvement in the job market.
The number of initial claims fell to 421,000 in the week ending Dec. 4, down 17,000 from a revised 438,000 claims filed the week before, the Labor Department said Thursday.
The figure beat analyst forecasts of 429,000 for the week.
"The weekly claims figures continue to point to a steady improvement in job market conditions," Zach Pandl, an economist with Nomura Securities, said in a research note.
The four-week moving average, which is calculated to smooth out volatility in the data, fell by 4,000 to 427,500.
The moving average has been inching lower over the last month, after being stuck in the mid- to upper-400,000s since last year.
Continuing claims also fell. The number of Americans who were filing for their second week of unemployment insurance or more -- dropped to 4,086,000, in the week ending Nov. 27, the latest data available. That's the lowest level of continuing claims in two years.
While the drop in jobless claims reflects some improvement in the job market, the trend is still sluggish at best.
According to most economists, weekly initial claims need to drop below 400,000 to signal real improvement in the job market, and before the unemployment rate -- which currently stands at 9.8% -- can drop significantly.
Employers are still jittery about hiring, as they struggle to forecast consumer demand into the next year, said Harry Griending, founder of recruiting consulting firm DoubleStar, Inc.
And while there's more clarity about taxes after President Obama announced a new tax plan earlier this week, uncertainties about the costs of health care and financial regulations still hang over employers' heads, he said.
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