WASHINGTON – The job market is looking a little brighter at the start of the new year.

Weekly unemployment benefit applications have fallen to levels last seen more than three years ago. Holiday sales were solid. Service companies grew a little faster in December. And many small businesses say they plan to add jobs over the next three months.

The mix of private and government data released Thursday sketched a picture of an economy that is slowly strengthening, stoking optimism one day ahead of the government’s important read on December job growth.

“Businesses have increased hiring to meet the underlying pick-up in (consumer) demand,” said Neil Dutta, an economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Weekly applications for unemployment benefits dropped to a seasonally adjusted 372,000 last week, the Labor Department said Thursday. That’s 11 percent lower than the same time last year.

The four-week average, which smooths fluctuations, fell to 373,250 — the lowest level since June 2008.

When applications drop below 375,000 — consistently — they generally signal that hiring is strong enough to reduce the unemployment rate.

Steven Wood, an economist at Insight Economics, said applications last year averaged 411,000 per week, down from 459,000 per week in 2010.

That’s “a clear indication that the pace of layoffs has slowed,” Wood said.

U.S. service firms, which employ roughly 90 percent of the work force, grew a little faster in December, according to the Institute for Supply Management.

The trade group of purchasing managers said its index of non-manufacturing activity rose to 52.6. That’s slightly above November’s reading of 52 — the lowest in nearly two years — but well below last year’s high of 59.7 recorded in February.

Any reading above 50 indicates expansion.

An increase in new orders and stronger imports drove last month’s modest expansion. But a gauge of hiring showed many service firms were hesitant to add workers.

Retailers, meanwhile, reported solid but not spectacular sales gains last month. And much of the increase stemmed from heavy discounting that will likely cut into profits.

Sales rose 3.5 percent in December for a group of 25 retail chains tracked by the International Council of Shopping Centers. Holiday sales, which cover the last two months of the year, rose 3.3 percent, a decent rise but less than last year’s gain.

Economists surveyed by the Associated Press project that the economy will generate an average of 175,000 jobs per month this year. That would be a step up from average monthly gains of 130,000 last year and 78,000 in 2010.