WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. economy probably generated more than 200,000 jobs in March, capping the best four months of hiring since before the recession.
Economists expect that U.S. employers added 210,000 jobs last month and that the unemployment rate remained at 8.3 percent for the third straight month, according to a survey by FactSet.
The Labor Department will release the March employment report at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
If the forecast proves correct, the economy would have added an average of 236,000 jobs per month since December. That's the most for a four-month period in almost six years. It would also mark the first time the economy has created at least 200,000 jobs in four straight months since early 2000.
"The labor market is steadily, if slowly, strengthening," says Steven Wood, chief economist at Insight Economics.
Stock markets will be closed and bond markets will close early for Good Friday.
An improving job market could boost President Barack Obama's chances of winning a second term. This year's election is expected to hinge on the state of the economy.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the likely Republican challenger, this week blamed the president's policies for slow growth and high unemployment.
The Obama campaign has said that Romney would reinstate policies that led to the recession — lower taxes for the wealthy and less regulation for business.
For many, what matters most is the unemployment rate. It was 7.8 percent when Obama entered office in January 2009 and peaked at 10 percent nine months later. Since August, it has dropped from 9.1 percent to 8.3 percent, the lowest level in three years.
No incumbent since World War II has faced voters with unemployment higher than 7.8 percent.
Other data suggest the economic recovery is gaining strength. The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell last week to a four-year low, the government said Thursday. Consumers are more confident. In February, they stepped up spending by the most in seven months.
The service sector expanded at a healthy clip in March and increased hiring, according to a private survey released Wednesday by the Institute for Supply Management. A separate ISM survey of manufacturers found that factories also added jobs and boosted production last month.