Claims for unemployment benefits have risen here and across the country. But hiring slowly continues to improve.

The number of unemployment claims nationally were up 13-thousand last week to a seasonally adjusted 380,000.After steadily declining since last fall, applications have leveled off in recent weeks. The four-week average is essentially unchanged over the past two months.

They also rose here in New Jersey for the first time in five weeks.

Economic analyst Patrick O'Keefe of J-H Cohn in Roseland says both employment trends and a trend toward lower unemployment claims are improving. But he cautions New Jersey still faces at least two years, and perhaps as long as four years before its labor market s back to where it was prior to the downturn.

Job creation for March came in last week at a disappointing 120-thousand following a December, January and February of 200-thousand-plus new jobs improvements each month. Economists note that applications for unemployment aid are at a much lower level than they were last year, suggesting that March's weak numbers might have been a temporary lull.