WASHINGTON – The number of people applying for U.S. unemployment benefits fell last week for the first time in five weeks. But the drop suggests only modest job growth after three months of weak hiring.

The Labor Department said Thursday that applications for weekly benefits dropped by 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 377,000. That’s down from an upwardly revised 389,000 the previous week.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose by 1,750 to 377,500, the highest level in a month.

Applications are a measure of the pace of layoffs. When claims dip below 375,000, it typically suggests hiring is strong enough to reduce the unemployment rate. They have hovered near that level for most of the year after declining sharply last fall.

“Although the labor market appears to have stabilized, and is stronger than it was in 2011, it is not particularly robust,” Steven A. Wood, chief economist at Insight Economics wrote.