First-time applications for state unemployment benefits dropped 24,000 to a seasonally adjusted 467,000 in the week ending Jan. 3, the Labor Department said Thursday. This report marks the third consecutive week of declines, a much improved trend that may foreshadow an unexpected sign of stability in the economy, as Dow Jones Newswires expected claims would actually climb 63,000. Or it may prove to mean little at all, too, given that holiday readings of employment data tend to be rather volatile. Labor Department officials said the drop in this week’s data, as well as the sharp decline in last week’s figures, may be due to layoffs that occurred earlier than government analysts had originally expected. They added that claims could remain low for a couple of weeks before turning upward again, according to a Market Watch report. While new claims fell, continuing claims — declared by workers who have collected benefits for more than a week — for the week ending Dec. 27, rose 101,000 to 4,611,000, the highest level since Novemer 1982. So as it appears less people have lost their jobs in the past few weeks, finding a job in the current economy surely isn’t getting any easier. The largest increases in initial claims were seen in Wisconsin — where 16,801 people filed a claim — Michigan, Kansas, Massachusetts and New Jersey, according to the report. Interestingly, California posted the largest increase in claims during the last reporting period, but dropped off the radar this past week. The four-week moving average of new jobless claims, which can sometimes even volatility in the data, dropped 27,000 to 525,000, Thursday’s data said. The level of initial claims remains 42 percent higher than the same period last year. Write to Kelly Curran at email@example.com.