WASHINGTON – Initial jobless claims ticked up last week, but still indicated an improving labor market as the four-week average hit its lowest point in five years.

The number of people filing for the first time for unemployment benefits rose to 336,000 for the week ending Saturday, up 2,000 from the previous week’s revised figure, the Labor Department said Thursday.

The reading was better than analysts expected. A Reuters poll of economists had projected the figure at 342,000.

The average number of initial claims in the latest four weeks, a less-volatile barometer, dropped by 7,500 to 339,750. The last time it was that low was in February 2008, not long after the start of the Great Recession.

A little more than a year later, the four-week average had spiked to nearly 660,000 initial claims. It has been decreasing slowly ever since, but the pace of decline has picked up in recent months.

Last week was the third in a row that the four-week average was below 350,000, the level of initial claims that economists say is consistent with moderate growth in the job market.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Wednesday noted the declines in weekly jobless claims as a sign of the improving labor market.

The latest weekly claim figures point toward another strong month of job creation in March. The economy added 236,000 net jobs in February.