May saw the lowest numbers of people on the unemployment benefit rolls in 43 years, the Department of Labor reported Thursday, another encouraging sign for the U.S. jobs market.

Thursday's report showed that new claims for unemployment benefits rose 13,000 to 248,000 in the last full week of May, more than the 239,000 expected by private-sector forecasters had expected.

New claims are still low by historical standards, however, and the underlying news from the report was positive.

Over the four weeks ending May 20, an average of just over 1.9 million people received benefits in total, the lowest such mark since early 1974, when the labor force was much smaller. Unemployment benefits are available for up to 26 weeks in most states.

Running at the lowest levels in decades, jobless claims have provided the strongest signal of any economic indicator recently that the jobs recovery remains strong, even as it approaches seven years in duration.

Any number of new jobless claims below 300,000 is a sign that the unemployment rate will hold steady or go down, economists reckon. That mark hasn't been hit in years, and job growth has remained robust.

"The pattern is consistent with the trend in employment growth remaining strong -- 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.

Forecasters expected before Thursday's report that Friday's monthly jobs report would show 185,000 new jobs created in May, with the unemployment rate holding steady at 4.4 percent.