WASHINGTON - U.S. manufacturing and construction spending both grew in December; the amount of Americans seeking unemployment benefits dropped slightly last week.

Manufacturing: U.S. manufacturing grew at a healthy pace in December as factories stepped up hiring and received more orders. The expansion suggests solid growth at the end of the year.

The Institute for Supply Management, a trade group of purchasing managers, says its index of manufacturing activity slipped to 57 from 57.3 in November. But that's still the second-highest reading in the past 2 ½ years. And any reading above 50 signals growth.

A measure of new orders rose to the highest level since April 2010. And a gauge of hiring increased to its highest level since June 2011. Production and a measure of manufacturers' stockpiles fell.

Unemployment benefits: The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits dipped 2,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 339,000, evidence that layoffs are low and hiring will likely remain steady.

The Labor Department says the less volatile four-week average rose 8,500 to 357,250. The average was driven up in recent weeks by spikes that reflected seasonal volatility around the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. The government struggles to account for seasonal hiring by retailers and other businesses and for temporary layoffs of school employees during the holidays.

Applications are a proxy for layoffs. They appear to have stabilized near the pre-recession levels reached in the late summer and are at a level consistent with solid hiring.

The unemployment rate fell to a five-year low of 7 percent in November.

Construction: U.S. construction spending rose in November at the strongest pace in more than four years, driven by solid gains in home construction and commercial projects.

The Commerce Department says construction spending increased 1 percent in November to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $934.4 billion. That's the fastest rate since March 2009 and a slight improvement on the 0.9 percent gain in October.

Residential construction rose 1.9 percent in November, after falling in October. Homebuilding last exceeded the November pace shortly before the 2008 financial crisis. Spending on single-family homes has increased 18.4 percent year over year, while spending on apartment buildings is up 36.3 percent during the same period.

Commercial projects also increased 2.7 percent in November, while government construction spending fell 1.8 percent after strong gains in October.