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December's employment report, due out Friday, is expected to show about 200,000 new payroll jobs — a steady rate of growth and an encouraging sign that the labor market and economy may have finally started to turn after years of false starts.
Job growth is expected to have been broad-based, with services industry workers topping the list of hires, but with additions in construction and manufacturing as well. Economists say the employment situation also improved because government workers are no longer being let go.
"I think relative to where we were a few months ago … a lot of people are more optimistic about what's going on in terms of job growth and GDP growth," said JPMorgan economist Daniel Silver.
The hope is that this new momentum, showing up in consumer spending and industrial production, will not sputter like so many other rebounds have since the recovery began.
Some other jobs-related reports also show an improving hiring environment.
ADP released private sector payroll data Wednesday showing 238,000 private sector jobs added in December, the best number in a year. November jobs were revised to 229,000, bringing the monthly pace of private sector hiring to 225,000.
Challenger Gray & Christmas said planned layoffs fell by 32 percent in December to the lowest level since June 2000.
Perhaps the most trusted reading on employment is the more current weekly jobless claims data. Thursday's report showed that the number of new unemployment claims dropped by 15,000 in the week ended Jan. 4, to 330,000. Claims are volatile around the holiday season and were elevated in December but have now dropped back to a slightly lower-than-expected level.
JPMorgan economists expect to see 215,000 nonfarm payrolls added in December and an unchanged unemployment rate of 7 percent when the December report is released at 8:30 a.m. ET. November saw 203,000 jobs created.
Reuters reported economists' consensus at 196,000 jobs, but that was before several economists raised their forecasts after the ADP report.
"There's a sense that some momentum was building at the end of last year," Silver said, noting that if the December employment report comes in as expected, job growth would be at 200,000 for three straight months and four of the past five months.
Meanwhile, small-business hiring, a major engine of the job market, appears to be improving. The National Federation of Independent Business said its survey of small-business owners showed companies increased employment in December by an average of 0.24 workers per company, the best reading since February 2006.
Eric Fisk, president of the 40-year-old Fisk Alloy, in Hawthorne, N.J., foresees a pickup in business this year, and he expects to expand his 175-person workforce by about 10 percent.
"A general statement — I would concur the overall tenor of business is quietly getting stronger," said Fisk, whose company makes high-quality alloy wire for conductor and connector products. "We'd been flat for the last couple of years."
Fisk said he has been able to find and hire machine operators, but that some higher-level engineering positions are harder to fill.
According to Mesirow Financial economist Diane Swonk, the jobs market may have turned some months ago, but the government shutdown in October clouded the data.
"It's the trend in employment that matters, and the trends have been good," Swonk said. "What matters to me is not the number but also that the revisions have been good. In an economy you tend to miss stuff over time. You miss turning points. These numbers aren't very good at picking up turning points. They only catch it in the revisions."
She expects the report to show a mix of new jobs in construction and manufacturing.
"We could easily be surprised on the upside. Bottom line, if we keep turning out 200,000 jobs and up, that's enough to keep bringing people in," Swonk said.
—By CNBC's Patti Domm. Follow her on Twitter @pattidomm.