The number of people seeking state unemployment benefits increased for the first time in four weeks, but with the figures dropping for three consecutive weeks prior to the most recent reading, this could be a sign that maybe the U.S. job market is turning a corner.

The Labor Department says new claims in the week ended Dec. 24 increased by 15,000 to 381,000. Jobless claims have registered below the key 400,000 mark -- a level historically associated with an improving labor market -- in seven of the past eight weeks.

Economists polled by Reuters called for an increase of 4,000. Last week, initial claims were at 364,000. For most economists, the seasonal impact of holiday season hiring requires taking these numbers with a grain of salt.

Thursday's data showed the four-week moving average, considered a less volatile measure of the labor market trends, came in at 375,000, a decrease of 5,750 from the previous week's revised average of 380,750, and the lowest since June 2008.

Continuing claims -- which include people filing for the second week of benefits or more - rose by 34,000, to 3,601,000 in the week ended Dec. 17.

The continuing claims figure does not include the number of Americans receiving extended benefits under federal programs.

The four-week moving average for ongoing claims fell by 39,000, to 3,598,750 from the preceding week's revised 3,637,750.

The unemployment rate fell to 8.6 percent in November, the lowest level in more than two years. As long as claims remain below the 400,000 level, it will give the markets some breathing room heading into next Friday's closely watched nonfarm payroll report, which could give markets more insight on whether the labor market is improving as much as believed in the U.S.