WASHINGTON (AP) -- Factories produced more cars, appliances, computers and furniture in February, lifting manufacturing output for the sixth straight month and helping the jobs market heal.

Overall output at the nation's factories, mines and utilities dipped 0.1 percent last month, the Federal Reserve said Thursday. But the first decline in industrial production since October was caused by unseasonably warmer weather that cut demand for gas and electric utilities.

Industrial production has risen by nearly 12 percent since hitting its recession low in June 2009. It remains about 6 percent below its pre-recession peak in September 2007.

Factory production, the biggest slice of industrial activity, rose 0.4 percent last month. Manufacturers have increased production in 17 of the 21 months since the recession ended. They are expected to keep boosting economic growth, despite the nuclear crisis in Japan.

Stronger factory activity has been an important factor supporting job growth. As the economy gains strength, companies are reducing layoffs and increasing hiring.

As a result, fewer people are seeking unemployment benefits. The Labor Department said applications for benefits over the past four weeks dropped to 386,250, the lowest level since July 2008.

Factories added 33,000 jobs last month, the fourth straight month of gains. Manufacturers have created 190,000 jobs in the past year, the highest 12-month total for that sector since 1998.

Manufacturing activity has been supported by stronger demand at home and abroad. Sales of U.S. exports to foreign buyers have been rising. Until Japan's rebuilding phase kicks it, the country is likely to buy fewer goods and services from the United States.

But that is likely to be offset by increasing demand from other nations. U.S. exporters are expected to fill orders typically placed with Japanese companies, until those companies are able to resume more normal operations, analysts said.