WASHINGTON - The number of people on the jobless rolls is down by a fraction, but those figures could be deceiving: Economists expect the unemployment rate to rise again today, and jobs should be scarce for months to come.

The total number of people on unemployment aid fell slightly for the first time in 20 weeks, down about 15,000 to 6.7 million, the Labor Department said yesterday. It was the first drop in that figure since early January.

First-time jobless claims also dipped to a seasonally adjusted 621,000.

Although it may be a sign businesses are starting to hire again, some economists say the lower numbers could simply mean people out of work are using up their benefits.

Productivity is also up among U.S. workers, according to another report out yesterday, but only because companies are forced to produce more with fewer workers. That means the firms probably will delay hiring even after the economy begins growing again.

"We don't think the jobless rate is close to peaking yet," economists at Wrightson ICAP said in a note to clients. They did say they expected the increase to be slower.

Analysts forecast the unemployment rate will rise to 9.2 percent when the government releases its May jobs report today. Many economists expect it to top 10 percent by year's end and to keep rising into next year. *