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Associated Press
U.S. Army veteran John Godman, right, talks to recruiters Nicole Rushton, left, and Megan Hogan at a hiring fair for veterans Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. In recent months, the picture has brightened for job seekers. The steadily declining level of layoffs suggests that employers may have to hire even more ag­gres­sive­ly and raise pay if they want to expand their businesses.

Confidence up as layoffs dwindle

The risk of losing your job is getting smaller and smaller.

As the U.S. economy has improved and employers have regained confidence, companies have been steadily shedding fewer workers, and applications for unemployment benefits have dwindled to their lowest level since February 2006 – nearly two years before the recession began – the government said Thursday.

The trend means greater job security and suggests a critical turning point in the economic recovery. It raises the hope that workers’ pay will finally accelerate after grinding through a sluggish recovery for the past half decade.

When the economy sank into recession at the end of 2007, employers cut deeply into their staffs. And then during the recovery, they hired only hesitantly.

Instead, they sought to maximize the productivity of their existing employees.

But in recent months, the picture has brightened. Employers have added 200,000-plus jobs for five consecutive months, and the unemployment rate has reached 6.1 percent, the lowest since 2008.

Now, the steady decline of layoffs suggests that employers may have to hire more ag­gres­sive­ly and raise pay if they want to expand, said Joel Naroff, president of Nar­off Economic Advisers.

“They’ve been continually work­ing their workers harder and long­er,” Naroff said. “As a result of that, we have consistent growth, and you can’t lay off people anymore.”

The shortage of laid-off workers searching for jobs means that more companies may need to pay more to attract talent. Wage growth has essentially kept pace with inflation so far, and household incomes remain below 2007 levels.

Most businesses have been hesitant to raise wages.

“But when the dam breaks, it’s really going to break,” Naroff predicted.

Some firms say they’re already dealing with wage pressures.

Applied Medical Technology in Cleveland has raised hourly pay for warehouse employees from $8.25 to $10.

It did so to attract new hires and because it heard that some of its employees had quit for raises­ elsewhere, said Jeff Elliott, the company’s chief financial officer.

The company also started holding pizza parties and summer cookouts. Elliott said it’s cheaper and easier to keep existing employees than to find and train new ones.

Throughout the economy, layoffs have fallen so much that the number of people seeking un­em­ploy­ment benefits plunged last week to a seasonally adjusted 284,000, a low last achieved in Feb­ru­ary 2006.

And after accounting for U.S. population growth, the number of people applying for unemployment aid has reached its lowest point since 1999.

The four-week average of applications, which smooths out week-to-week fluctuations, has dropped to 302,000 from 348,500 when the year began.

Employers added a net 288,000 jobs in June.