NEW YORK - A monthly gauge of online labor demand in the United States edged up in March and is near 6 percent above the reading from a year ago, a private research group said on Thursday.

Monster Worldwide Inc , an online careers and recruiting firm, said its employment index rose to 125 points in March from 124 in February, its highest reading since the 131 hit in December 2008. The current month's reading is 5.9 percent above the 118 mark a year ago.

The monthly rise in March demand was due in part to growth in job offerings from construction companies, Monster said.

While the labor market continues to be challenging for those looking for work, we are encouraged to see early signs of what may be a return to consistent job growth, said Jesse Harriott, a vice president at Monster.

The Monster index registered increases in 12 of 20 industries and 13 of 23 occupations monitored in the last month.

Online job demand was higher in four of the nine U.S. census regions, with the Pacific and Mid Atlantic registering the largest increases.

The report comes ahead of the U.S. Labor Department's release of weekly initial claims for jobless benefits, due later on Thursday and expected at 440,000 according to a Reuters poll of economists.

The Monster Employment index is a monthly analysis based on a selection of corporate career sites and job boards. The margin of error is approximately plus or minus 1 percent.

(Editing by Andrew Hay)