WASHINGTON (AP) -- Did March provide another month of blowout hiring? Was pay growth healthy?
When the government issues its monthly jobs report Friday, those two questions will be the most closely watched barometers.
Economists have forecast that employers added a solid 185,000 jobs in March and that the unemployment rate dipped from 4.1 percent to a fresh 17-year low of 4 percent, according to data provider FactSet.
The government will issue the jobs report at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
In February, employers added a blockbuster 313,000 jobs, the largest monthly gain in 18 months. Over the past six months, the average monthly gain has been 205,000, up from an average of 176,000 in the previous six months. Hiring at that pace could help nudge the unemployment rate below 4 percent in the coming months.
The surging pace of hiring has defied expectations that the low unemployment rate meant employers would struggle to fill positions, which, in turn, would restrain job growth. Job gains had slowed for most of 2017. But hiring accelerated starting in October, an unusual boost for an economy already in its ninth year of recovery.
In fact, the recovery from the 2008-2009 Great Recession has become the second-longest expansion since the 1850s, when economists began tracking recessions and recoveries. Still, the expansion has been puzzlingly slow, with economic growth averaging just 2.2 percent a year — about a percentage point below the historical average. But its durability has been broadly beneficial.
For example, a rising number of working-age Americans have begun looking for a job and finding one, reversing a trend from the first few years after the recession when many of the unemployed grew discouraged and stopped looking for work.
The proportion of adults in their prime working years — defined as ages 25 to 54 — who are either working or looking for work jumped to 82.2 percent in February, up one-half a percentage point from a year earlier. That's still below the pre-recession level, which suggests that steady economic growth could continue to pull more job-seekers off the sidelines.
An increasing need to compete for workers may also finally be lifting wages in some sectors. Average hourly earnings rose 2.9 percent in January compared with 12 months earlier, the sharpest such increase in eight years. That unexpected surge triggered a plunge in financial markets, with investors fearing that accelerating wage growth might lead the Federal Reserve to step up its pace of interest rate hikes to control inflation.
But pay growth slipped in February to a year-over-year pace of 2.6 percent, suggesting that employers are still avoiding giving broad pay raises to their workers. The influx of new workers, which gives employers more hiring options than a 4.1 percent unemployment rate might otherwise suggest, may also be holding back wage growth.
Though the economy likely slowed in the first three months of this year, the healthy pace of hiring indicates that employers anticipate solid customer demand for the rest of the year. Macroeconomic Advisers, a consulting firm, forecasts that the economy grew at just a 1.4 percent annual rate in the January-March quarter — less than half the 2.9 percent annual pace of the October-December quarter.
But the firm expects growth to rebound to a decent 3.1 percent annual pace in the current April-June quarter.
Other reports indicate that growing optimism among businesses and consumers should help propel the economy in the months ahead.
Businesses have stepped up their spending on manufactured goods, helping lift factory output.
And last month, factories expanded at a healthy pace after having grown in February at the fastest rate since 2004, according to a private survey. Government data showed that orders for long-lasting factory goods — including industrial machinery, metals and autos — surged in February.
Americans have spent less at retail chains in the past two months, after shopping at a healthy pace during the winter holiday season. With consumer confidence near the highest point in two decades, however, consumer spending is likely to rebound in the coming months.