U.S. employers are poised to start adding hundreds of thousands of jobs to their payrolls, nearly a year and a half after the United States fell into a severe recession, according to the Obama administration and many economists.
When the nation's jobs report for March is released early Friday morning, the consensus prediction is that about 200,000 jobs were created in the course of the month.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and other administration officials also projected cautious optimism that job growth may be around the corner.
"We are probably just on the verge now of what we think is going to be a sustained period of job creation, finally," Geithner told CNBC earlier this week.
If such predictions come true, it would signal that economic recovery is finally starting to translate to the one area that needs help the most: the jobs market.
Since the recession started in late 2008, 8.4 million jobs have been lost. The nation's unemployment rate has soared to 9.7 percent. There were nearly 15 million U.S. job-seekers in February who couldn't find work, which skyrockets to 26 million when factoring in discouraged workers such as those forced to work part-time.
But that may all be about to turn around.
One sign that the Obama administration is expecting strong job growth in March is that the president will travel to North Carolina Friday to deliver a speech on the nation's economy. His speech in the Charlotte area will come hours after the jobs report is released.
Obama will take a tour of the manufacturing facilities at Celgard, a Charlotte-based battery component manufacturer, and will discuss the economy to workers there.
"North Carolina is one of the states in the country that has seen fairly big unemployment in terms of their rate is north of 10 percent," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
Gibbs said the White House chose Celgard in order to highlight "a company that is seeing, as a result of the investments that they've made in creating the jobs of the future, increases that they've made in their hiring rolls."
White House Points to Its Policies
Celgard recently received a $50 million stimulus grant from the Energy Department to expand its Charlotte production facility and build a second plant that would produce battery components for electric cars.
Despite the optimistic forecasts from some economists, however, don't expect the White House to pop champagne Friday, even if there is positive job growth.
The White House will view the jobs report much like it has the past few months. While it knows there is still a long way to go to make a significant dent in the nation's jobless rate, it also boasts that the economy has come a long way from the days of losing 700,000 jobs a month.
"Unless the jobs report comes back and says that we've created 8.5 million jobs in this last month, the president's going to treat this jobs report the same way he has treated all the rest of them, which is to say that we've got a lot more work to do," White House spokesman Bill Burton said Wednesday.
The White House believes that the improvements stem from policies it enacted to create an environment for the private sector to create jobs, with more policies coming down the road in areas such as credit for small businesses and "green" jobs.
Geithner said earlier this week that "the economy is getting stronger" and there are numerous signs to back up that claim.
First and foremost, the economy grew at a 5.6 percent annual rate during the final three months of 2009. Compared to when the Obama administration took office in January of last year -– a time when the economy was declining by 6.4 percent -- it is clear that the nation is coming out of its recession.
The stock market has also seen gains recently, increasing by more than 5 percent during a one-month streak. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is now on the verge of breaking the 11,000 point barrier. If the market does so, it will have rallied 68 percent from its lows back in March of 2009.
Other positive economic indicators include stronger retail sales numbers, five months of increased consumer spending and more durable goods orders.
But most economists would say that the one factor that matters above all others is jobs, which is what makes the jobs report for March so eagerly anticipated.
Slump May Follow Growth
Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody's, said he believes the March jobs report will show 175,000 jobs created. But he advised the administration not to get too excited.
"I think they need to temper their enthusiasm," Zandi told ABC News.
The administration, he said, should expect a strong jobs numbers this spring, but a slump come summer.
"The next three months are going to be very, very strong," he said, but "in June, July, and August, the jobs numbers are going to be weaker."
There are two reasons the March jobs report could make the employment situation appear better than it really is.
First, February's numbers -– 36,000 jobs lost -– were hurt by the snowstorms that swept across parts of the country. The nasty winter weather caused some businesses to shut down and some job-seekers to stay home, skewing the jobs report toward the negative side.
In March, companies may have tried to make up for their reduced hiring in February. Zandi of Moody's said February's bad weather could boost the March numbers by about 50,000 jobs.
Second, the once-a-decade Census kicks into high gear this spring, another factor that could inflate the jobs numbers. In all, the census is expected to lead to the hiring of about 1.2 million temporary workers this year, with 800,000 of them coming onboard in late spring. Zandi said the census hiring could inflate the March jobs numbers by about 100,000 jobs.
As a result of the temporary addition of census workers, White House officials are well aware that it may be difficult to interpret the data to determine any large trend.
"There's a lot of different factors that we'll see in this jobs report," Burton of the White House said. "But the president is committed to putting the American people back to work and keeping this economy on track."
The director of the Census Bureau downplayed the impact that census jobs will have on the March job figures.
"The impact for the census on unemployment, if it occurs, will really occur for the May and June numbers," Census Bureau director Robert Groves told ABC News. "That is the period where we hire a lot of people to follow up on the non-responsive households."
ADP Report Dampens Optimism
As Rebecca Blank, undersecretary for economic affairs at the Commerce Department, told ABC News in an interview last month, "The census has a very positive effect on the economy. The hope, of course, is that this is going to be hitting just as the prime economic growth and employment are picking up, so that it will help that acceleration."
But a report from ADP Employer Services Wednesday showed that employees in the private-sector cut 23,000 jobs in March. The number was far below the consensus forecast of 40,000 jobs gained. Still, the ADP report can differ widely from the Labor Department's Friday numbers because it only covers private-sector jobs.
"We've known for a long time that the jobs market faces a lot of challenges," Alan Krueger, the Treasury Department's assistant secretary for economic policy, told ABC News. "I think the ADP numbers are a reminder that companies have been very hesitant to hire."
Zandi, too, cited the ADP report as cause for concern. He also cautioned that even if there is strong jobs growth this spring, the nation's 9.7 percent unemployment rate is still likely to rise later this year.
"I don't think we've seen the peak in unemployment. I think we're going over 10 percent again," Zandi warned, citing a large number of workers who left the workforce but will now start looking for jobs again as the labor market improves.
The Obama administration has previously forecast that the overall labor market will add about 100,000 jobs per month for the rest of this year, about 200,000 jobs a month next year, and 250,000 jobs a month in 2012.
"We expect to begin seeing job gains sometime this spring," Christina Romer, chair of the administration's Council of Economic Advisers, told Congress at a hearing last month.