In keeping with the pattern of the past 18 months, economists seem to be getting ahead of themselves in forecasting aggressive jobs growth for February. On average, economists are predicting that 225,000 new jobs were created last month, up from the 146,000 created in January.

But history shows the last time the U.S. saw such a jump in employment for the month of February was during the heady days of 1999. Only 120,000 jobs were created in February 2000.

Richard Yamarone, director of economic research at Argus Research, believes the current consensus is too high. "If jobs weren't created during the economic soiree

of 2000, how could we honestly come up with a 225,000-job increase now? It's possible but in our opinion unlikely."

Among the most important inputs into Yamarone's analysis are his conversations with corporate America. "What I am hearing from discussions with many CEOs is that the hiring they are doing is replacing and not creating new jobs," he said. Yamarone believes hiring is becoming more difficult for corporations, with the rising cost of health care and exploding commodity prices. Thus, he just can't justify the need for corporations to add that many new jobs.

Notably, the Challenger Job-Cut Report showed an increase in the announced corporate layoffs for February -- 108,387, up from 92,351 the previous month. Just this week,

Marsh & McLennan

(MMC) - Get Report

announced that it would cut another 2,500 jobs, bringing its total planned layoffs to 5,000. In recent months, we have seen layoff announcements from auto suppliers

Dana

( DCN) and

Visteon

(VC) - Get Report

.

Meanwhile,

General Motors

(GM) - Get Report

and

Ford

(F) - Get Report

both have announced production cuts to curtail their building inventories; that means less hiring from the beleaguered auto giants.

Manufacturers aren't alone in the job-cut game: The only thing certain about the takeover battle for

MCI

( MCIP) is that suitors

Verizon

(VZ) - Get Report

and

Qwest

(Q)

have each promised significant layoffs.

The recently released weaker-than-expected Institute for Supply Management numbers also show that all is not picture perfect in the economy. The ISM index fell to 55.3% in February, down from 56.4% in January and vs. expectations for a rise to 56.7%.

The drop was the third straight and the sixth in seven months, and it took the ISM index to its lowest reading since September 2003. "This is a sign that the global industrial slowdown will persist for now," observed Anirvan Banerji, director of research at the Economic Cycle Research Institute and a

RealMoney.com

contributor.

Still, Michael Gregory, a senior economist at BMO Nesbitt Burns, points out that the ISM number has consistently held above the 50 mark, which denotes an expanding factory sector.

"Chances are the payroll number will be on the upper level of what economists are predicting, and the recently released ISM numbers haven't changed our outlook too much," he said, noting that the financial markets are bracing for an above-consensus number.

Indeed, Bianco Research in Chicago maintains there are "asymmetric" risks for a rally in Treasuries -- which generally do better when economic data disappoint -- because of "impossibly high expectations for Friday's number."

Speaking of which, Brian Jones, senior economist at Citigroup, believes that all economic gauges are pointing full steam ahead, and he is calling for the employment number to be 300,000.

"Friday's report will show the labor market has dramatically improved, and look for the unemployment rate to drop to 5.1%," Jones said. The recent figures in jobless claims have been in check and should continue to improve. Everything from Internet job postings and help-wanted ads to cooperating weather will help push the nonfarm payroll number, according to Jones.

The upward revision of the fourth quarter's GDP has given the optimistic economists more ammunition but still does not give them all the firepower.

"Something is amiss, and we should be asking ourselves why this recovery is generating such weak job creation and correspondingly bad forecasts," points out Barry Ritholtz, chief market strategist at Maxim Group and a

Real Money

contributor.

Many economists link the nonfarm payroll numbers to the jobless claims data. The unemployment insurance benefit tells us a great deal about joblessness and unemployment but absolutely nothing about new job creation. Just because jobless claims are falling, it doesn't mean corporations are going through the very costly process of hiring workers, says Yamarone.

According to Carl Miller, managing director of the Russell Stephens financial executive search firm, "I do not have enough people to fill all of my job vacancies." A few of the problems are demographics and retirement. He points out that with the rising home values, many homeowners are cashing in and enjoying an early retirement. It is hard to fill the roles of senior management with the lack of a talent pool, he said.

But most of these vacant jobs are for companies replacing vacant positions vs. creating new ones, he concedes.

Taking a few things into consideration, such as all-time high commodity prices, a rise in production costs and the continual announcements of corporate layoffs, the addition of 225,000 new jobs is a hard number to grasp. It doesn't take an economist to see how difficult times still are. The deli where I get breakfast every morning can no longer offer free coffee with the special, because coffee prices continue to climb.

In sum, it looks like the jobs number will be slightly above January's report but short of the consensus estimate.