WASHINGTON (AP) -- The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid rose sharply last week but remained at a level consistent with moderate hiring.

Weekly applications for unemployment benefits leapt 38,000 to a seasonally adjusted 368,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The increase comes after applications plummeted in the previous two weeks to five-year lows.

The volatility reflects the government's difficulty adjusting

the data to account for layoffs after the holiday shopping season. Job cuts typically spike in the second week in January as retailers dismiss temporary employees hired for the winter holidays. Layoffs then fall in the second half of the month.

The department attempts to adjust for such fluctuations, but the January figures can still be volatile. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, ticked up to 352,000, just above a four-year low.

On Friday, the government is scheduled to issue its January jobs report. Analysts forecast that it will show employers added 155,000 jobs, the same as in December. The unemployment rate is expected to remain at 7.8 percent for the third straight month.

That's consistent with the number of people seeking unemployment aid. Applications fluctuated between 360,000 and 390,000 for most of last year. At the same time, employers added an average of 153,000 jobs a month.

That's just been enough to slowly push down the unemployment rate, which fell 0.7 percentage points last year.

Steady hiring is needed to resume economic growth. The government said Wednesday that the economy shrank at an annual rate of 0.1 percent in the October-December quarter, hurt by a sharp cut in defense spending, fewer exports and sluggish growth in company stockpiles.