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Traders on Friday will comb through the first of two key employment reports that could determine the likelihood of an interest rate hike in December.

"It's all riding on tomorrow. If we get a strong number the Fed may move," said Tom Siomades, head of Hartford Funds Investment Consulting Group. He expects Friday's report, due at 8:30 a.m. EST, to be more important than next month's in determining U.S. central bank policy.

Economists polled by Reuters forecast about 180,000 nonfarm payrolls for October, with unemployment holding at September's 5.1 percent rate.

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
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Analysts said generally any number above 150,000 would be positive for the economy, and support the case for a rate rise as soon as December. They will also watch the participation rate, revisions to prior months, and changes in hourly wages for signs of inflation and tightening in the labor market.

Anecdotally, certain sections of the job market seem to indicate pressure in the right areas.

"One of the things we're seeing based on viewers on our site is retailers are having a very hard time filling positions," said Tara Sinclair, chief economist at Indeed.

Just one other monthly employment report is due before the Federal Reserve meets Dec. 15 and 16.

While many analysts are focused on the overall trends in the labor market, Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank Securities, said the report in December is more important.

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"The markets and the Fed always focus on the last set of data," he said. "The November data that comes out in December, that's really going to indicate things."

Chicago Fed President Charles Evans is scheduled to be interviewed by CNBC at 8:30 a.m., just when October's employment data are released. Evans is a voting member of the Federal Open Market Committee.

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard is scheduled to speak at 9:10 a.m., and Fed Gov. Lael Brainard speaks at an IMF conference after the closing bell.

"The jobs market is just trudging along in the right fashion, getting better but doing so slowly," said Paul Springmeyer, investment managing director at the Private Client Reserve of U.S. Bank.

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"I think anything that brings clarity to the markets will be viewed as a positive. If rates stay where they are, that does raise some uncertainty," Springmeyer said.

Market analysts expect the central bank speakers to reaffirm Fed Chair Janet Yellen's Wednesday remarks that a December rate hike is still possible if data are supportive.

However, some economists see data softening as the next Fed meeting approaches.

"I think the longer we stay in this 'middleness,' the more we're looking for a downturn as the next step rather than an uptrend," Sinclair said.

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If the jobs report comes in just around expectations, as some analysts forecast, the data could just cause more confusion around the Fed before December's report and meeting.

Treasury yields have climbed sharply in the last week amid increased anticipation of a rate hike sooner rather than later. The yield remains at its highest levels in more than four years, while the 10-year yield held near its highest level since the September Fed meeting.

"I think the best way I can describe (the market) is it's probably the most schizophrenic I've seen in a long time," Jim Sarni, managing principal and senior portfolio manager of fixed income at Payden & Rygel.

"That is a picture of a market that doesn't have a lot of conviction. ... They're having trouble making sense of this data," Sarni said.

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After solid gains Monday and Tuesday, U.S. stocks waded through the subsequent two trading sessions in anticipation of the key employment report.

Stocks closed mildly lower Thursday, with the off 2.38 points at 2,099.93 and the Dow Jones industrial average down 4.15 points at 17,863.43. The Nasdaq composite underperformed, closing 0.3 percent lower at 5,127.74, as Qualcomm's plunge on a disappointing outlook dragged down semiconductor stocks.

Allianz, Cigna and Humana are due to report earnings before the open.

Consumer credit is due at 3 p.m.