A more than eight-year low in jobless claims is the latest evidence that hiring is picking up, but whether companies are willing to spend is another matter.
Economists, therefore, are watching Friday's release of durable goods data for signs that business spending is picking up. Durable goods orders are expected to increase by a half percent in June after a 0.9 percent decline in the prior report, and the nondefense, ex-aircraft core is expected to rise about the same.
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"I do expect continued stronger numbers," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "We've been getting stronger numbers over the last couple of months, so I'm hopeful that businesses are more aggressively expanding operations."
Zandi said he is encouraged by the fact that the number has been firming in the past three months, at the same time business surveys show greater confidence. "Hopefully in last month's data we see another solid number, suggesting businesses are expanding operations more aggressively."
Economists say the latest sign of an improving job market was the fact that weekly jobless claims—at 284,000—were the lowest level in 8½ years. The four-week average fell to 303,000, the lowest since May 2007.
There was, however, a caveat around the claims number, since it followed two weeks where the number was elevated. Economists say it was most likely reflecting a return of auto workers after an annual early July furlough for retooling.
"People are a little confused by the auto plant layoffs in the first two weeks of July. It went up in the first two weeks of July, then it collapsed in the third week—kind of like it does every year," said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi. "I think the effect has probably passed. 284,000 is quite below 300,000. The evidence is compelling that the labor market is all but healed."
Barclays economists expect to see 225,000 nonfarm payrolls and an unemployment rate of 6 percent when July's employment report is released Aug. 1. There were 288,000 jobs added in June and the unemployment rate was 6.1 percent.
Job opening data have also been showing improvement, with 4.6 million job openings in May, the highest since March 2007. The ratio of unemployed workers is down to 2.1, the lowest since May 2008.
"My sense is the economy has jumped to a new level this year," said Zandi. "It got masked by the terrible winter and what happened in Q1. We are in a higher growth trajectory in 2014 than we've been at any point in this recovery. I think that's clear in the job market and in the hiring and jobs opening data. I think it's becoming clear in the investiment data. Hopefully, ti will be verified in the data we get over the next two weeks."
Zandi said companies first move to hire, then invest.
"You get to the point where businesses go from focusing on margins and cost controls to focusing on growth opportunities," he said. "I think that threshold has been passed in the first part of the year. The switch in what businesses are focused on has occurred. The narrative is we're going to get stronger growth going forward."
Rupkey said the part of the durables report that reflects business spending could come in at a record level, besting the $70.99 billion in March. The new orders for nondefense capital goods, excluding aircraft, were $70.68 billion last month. Economists want to see the number begin to accelerate.
"We should get some good news tomorrow," he said.
--By CNBC's Patti Domm