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Jobs report could show things are looking up

A welder works on a pipe fitting at a construction site in Boston
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December's employment report is expected to show about 200,000 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 also 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.

(Read more: Jobless claims tumble, fanning hopes for labor market thaw)

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.

December jobs optimism

"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.

(Watch this: Cashin: this jobs number could hurt stocks)

Eric Fisk, president of the 40-year 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."

An initial rebound in his business after the downturn of 2008 and 2009 went flat, he said, adding that Fisk Alloy is tied more to products than to the general business cycle.

Fisk sees other companies with improving outlooks, as well.

"The good ones keep getting better, and the marginal ones take a long time to die," he said. "The good ones are building inertia."

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.

(Read more: Stronger jobs report seen encouraging Fed taper)

"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. "The real test will be the participation rate and what it does in 2014."

The participation rate was reported at 63 percent in November, a 35-plus-year low but slightly above the October reading of 62.8 percent. From 2003 to 2007, it was closer to 66 percent. The rate reflects the number of Americans working or actively looking for jobs, and Swonk doesn't expect much change immediately.

She sees signs of the economy picking up steam.

"The last two quarters of the year could be the best two quarters back-to-back since 2005, and that was before the trade data," Swonk said. "Growth easily exceeded 3.5 percent. At first we thought it was an inventory fluke—it was more than a fluke."

Third-quarter GDP growth has been revised to 4.1 percent. Fourth-quarter GDP will be reported Jan. 30.

"I don't know if we're going to see this kind of growth sustaining," Silver said. "With less fiscal drag on the horizon, I think we are relatively upbeat about next year."

JPMorgan expects fourth-quarter 2013 growth of 2.5 percent and growth of 2.8 percent in 2014.

—By CNBC's Patti Domm. Follow her on Twitter @pattidomm.

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