WASHINGTON, Feb 22 (Reuters) - The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week, suggesting that job growth likely remained solid in February.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 201,000 for the week ended Feb 17, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 218,000 claims for the latest week.

Claims are hovering at historically low levels, despite high profile layoffs at the start of the year.

Difficulties finding labor during and after the COVID-19 pandemic have generally left employers reluctant to reduce head count. Worker productivity has also increased while the economy continues to expand despite hefty interest rate increases from the Federal Reserve.

Minutes of the U.S. central bank's Jan. 30-31 meeting published on Wednesday showed officials continued to view the labor market as "tight," but several "noted that recent job gains were concentrated in a few sectors, which, in their view, pointed to downside risks to the outlook for employment."

Since March 2022, the Fed has raised its policy rate by 525 basis points to the current 5.25%-5.50% range.

The claims data covered the period during which the government surveyed businesses for the nonfarm payrolls component of February's employment report. The economy added 353,000 jobs in January.

The number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid, a proxy for hiring, fell 27,000 to 1.862 million during the week ending Feb. 10, the claims report showed. (Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)