WASHINGTON — The job market is sending signs that it may be strengthening.

The number of people seeking unemployment benefits has sunk to its lowest point in six years because few companies are laying anyone off anymore.

A survey of service companies found that they added jobs last month at their fastest pace in six months.

And more small businesses say they plan to hire than at any point since the recession began.
All of which is prompting some economists to forecast a healthier job gain in September than the economy has produced in recent months.

“If you put all that together, it suggests that there has been an improvement in job market conditions,” said Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics.

Ashworth predicts that employers will have added 220,000 jobs in September. That would be the biggest gain in nearly seven months and would mark a sharp reversal from the summer. Job growth has averaged just 155,000 a month since April, down from 205,000 in the first four months of the year.

The unemployment rate dropped to 7.3 percent in August from 7.4 percent in July. But the drop mostly occurred because more Americans stopped working or looking for jobs. The government no longer counts people without a job as unemployed once they stop looking for one.

The Federal Reserve is monitoring the jobs data as it considers when to slow its $85 billion in monthly bond purchases. Those purchases are intended to keep interest rates low and speed borrowing, spending and economic growth.

Last week, applications for unemployment benefits fell 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 305,000. The number had reached 294,000 two weeks earlier, but that figure was distorted by computer upgrades in California and Nevada that prevented those states from processing all their claims.