WASHINGTON – The number of people applying for unemployment benefits barely rose last week, offering some hope that the job market may be improving. But claims need to fall further to bring down the 9.6 percent unemployment rate.

Initial claims for jobless aid increased by 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 439,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. Still, claims have fallen below 440,000 in three of the past four weeks and remain near their lowest level in two years.

And the four-week average of claims, a less-volatile measure, fell for the fourth time in five weeks to 443,000.

The downward trend in both figures suggests companies are laying off fewer workers and some hiring is taking place — an encouraging sign for the economy. Still, most economists say claims need to drop below 425,000 to signal that hiring is really ramping up.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average rose 173.35, or 1.6 percent, to close at 11,181.23.

Stocks got a boost from a surprisingly strong reading on manufacturing from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

The report said factory orders in the mid-Atlantic region expanded at the fastest rate since December.