New applications for unemployment insurance benefits rose 3,000 to 244,000 in the first week of August, the Department of Labor reported Thursday.

Forecasters had expected jobless claims not to rise much above the previous week's very low level of 240,000.

Low jobless claims are an encouraging sign for the economy. They indicate that relatively few people are getting laid off, a phenomenon further substantiated by Wednesday's job openings report that showed layoffs have been grinding at pre-recession lows.

Meanwhile, the total number of people receiving benefits of all durations remained under 2 million for the 17th straight week, extending the best hot streak in 43 years.

While layoffs are very low, job openings hit the highest on record in June, the Department of Labor reported Wednesday.

Together, those facts suggest that job creation should keep up in the months ahead, even though there are fare fewer unemployed workers to be put to work than was the case in the worst of the recession. The unemployment rate was just 4.3 percent in July, the lowest since 2001.

"In short, claims remain low, consistent with the trend in employment growth remaining more than strong enough to keep the unemployment rate trending down," noted Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist for the forecasting firm High Frequency Economics.

The unemployment statistics and jobless claims portray a labor market that is very tight, a major factor in the Federal Reserve's thinking that it has to raise rates and withdraw stimulus later this year to prevent too-high inflation, even inflation has been running well below its 2 percent target in recent months.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to think that more people will come out of the woodwork and apply for jobs in the years ahead, keeping job growth on track.

Most importantly, there are signs that workforce participation could rise. In July, the total employment rate for all people between ages of 25 and 54 rose to 78.7 percent. The last time the unemployment rate was 4.3 percent, the corresponding employment rate for such working age people was 81.3 percent. The disparity suggests that there may be millions of people in their prime working years who could pick up the job hunt if the current recovery stays on track. Some of those people might have dropped out of the labor force during the recession, discouraged by the lack of jobs. Others might be torn between school or caring for family members and formal employment.