WASHINGTON (AP) -- 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.
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.
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 that prevented those states from processing all their claims.
Last week’s unemployment applications were the fewest since September 2007, when the recession began.
About 3.9 million Americans received unemployment benefits in the week that ended Sept. 7, about 23,000 more than in the previous week. That total has fallen 32 percent in the past year.