The number of Americans filing first-time claims for jobless benefits took an unexpectedly sharp plunge last week, reaching a level not seen since before the economy entered recession in 2001, a government report showed on Thursday.

Initial claims for state unemployment aid fell 43,000 to 348,000 in the week ending Nov. 1 from a revised 391,000 in the prior week, the Labor Department said.

Economists had expected claims to slip to 380,000 from a strike-elevated 386,000 initially reported for the week ending Oct. 25.

Initial claims and the four-week average have been below the 400,000 level for five weeks. Economists see that level as a divide between an improving and a deteriorating labor market, and the report suggested a long period of job losses may have finally run its course.