WASHINGTON - New orders for long-lasting U.S. manufactured goods excluding transportation surged in November, and applications for jobless benefits fell last week, pointing to a firmly entrenched economic recovery.

The U.S. Commerce Department said on Thursday orders excluding transportation surged 2.0 percent in November after falling 0.7 percent the previous month, beating market expectations for a 1.0 percent rise.

A plunge in orders in civilian aircraft, however, saw overall orders for durable goods rising only 0.2 percent, below market expectations for a 0.5 percent increase.

A separate report from the U.S. Labor Department showed initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell by 28,000 to a seasonally adjusted 452,000 last week. That was the lowest tally since early September 2008 and below market expectations for 470,000 new claims.

All evidence points to healing in the labor market. I would not be surprise to see a positive net payroll number in December. That would be the first time in about two years, said Robert Dye, senior economist at PNC Financial Services in Pittsburgh.

U.S. stock index futures held gains, while prices of U.S. government debt were slightly lower.

The labor market is mending after a bashing during the worst U.S. recession since the 1930s, and employers last month cut the fewest number of jobs in more than a year.

The unemployment rate dipped to 10 percent from a 26-1/2-year high of 10.2 percent in October.

Thursday's claims report also showed the number of people filing for benefits after an initial week of aid also fell to near a 15-month low in the week ended December 12, to 5.076 million from the previous week's 5.203 million.

Durable goods orders are a leading indicator of manufacturing activity and tend to give good indication of overall business health.

Non-defense aircraft and new parts orders plunged 32.6 percent last month, the department said.

Non-defense capital goods orders excluding aircraft, a closely watched proxy for business spending, jumped 2.9 percent last month after dropping 2 percent in October.

Durable goods inventories fell 0.2 percent in November after being flat the prior month. Shipments increased 0.3 percent, adding to October's 0.7 percent gain.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani and Emily Kaiser; Editing by Padraic Cassidy)