NEW YORK (AP) - Companies added nearly 300,000 jobs in December, according to an unofficial count by a private payroll firm - more than in any month in the past decade. The news raised hopes that the government's official report Friday on last month's job creation could be a blockbuster.
While there were reasons to doubt the numbers, the report from Automatic Data Processing, and another showing strength in the nation's service industries, reversed what was shaping up to be an ugly day on Wall Street. It also generated optimism that the unemployment rate might finally start to fall.
Some economists expressed skepticism about ADP's monthly figures because they often don't track the official government employment data. Others said that the report's estimate of job gains was so high that it at least reinforced evidence that hiring is picking up as employers gain more confidence.
Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial, says the ADP numbers suggest the Bureau of Labor Statistics could report Friday that the economy created more than 300,000 jobs last month. Economists have been predicting fewer than half as many - 145,000.
It takes about 125,000 new jobs a month just to keep up with population growth and hold the unemployment rate - now 9.8 percent - stable. It takes up to 300,000 new jobs a month to reduce the unemployment rate significantly.
The report is just the latest sign that the job market might be turning around at last. The Labor Department said last week that the number of people applying for unemployment benefits has fallen to its lowest point in two and a half years. The staffing firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas said Wednesday that layoffs fell last month to the lowest level since June 2000.
And big companies, which have been slow to commit to hiring full-time workers, are starting to do so again. Discount retailer Dollar General this week said it plans to hire more than 6,000 workers in 2011. Union Pacific, the nation's largest railroad, plans to replace 4,000 workers - about 10 percent of its total staff - who are set to retire in 2011. It's also recalling some employees who were furloughed during the recession.
Economists had expected the ADP numbers, the first major snapshot of hiring in December, to show that private employers added 100,000 jobs last month. The actual figure, 297,000, was "a bolt from the blue," says Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.
In part because of that powerful number, the Dow Jones industrial average edged higher for the third day in a row.