WASHINGTON — Fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week, a hopeful sign that the job market might be picking up.

The Labor Department says weekly applications dropped 9,000 to a seasonally adjusted 397,000, the lowest level in five weeks. It’s only the third time since April that applications have fallen below 400,000.

The four-week average, a less volatile measure, fell to 404,500, the fifth drop in the past six weeks. The declines indicate companies are laying off fewer workers.

The figures come a day before the government issues the October jobs report. Economists expect it will show a net gain of 100,000 jobs, with the unemployment rate remaining 9.1 percent.

Still, applications need to fall below 375,000 to signal sustained job gains. They haven’t been at that level since February.