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Big Jobs (Read: Census) Number on Tap?

Wall Street is expecting nonfarm payrolls to add another 500,000 in May, while the nation's unemployment rate probably edged down to 9.7%



) -- The Labor Department is set to offer its latest read on the nation's unemployment picture Friday morning at 8:30 a.m. EDT. And if forecasts hold true, the government will probably say employers added a hefty 500,000 jobs to nonfarm payrolls in May, according to consensus projections provided by

. The nation's unemployment rate is expected to edge just lower to 9.8% from 9.9%, as well.

Heady optimism appeared to pick up further Thursday, as

Goldman Sachs

boosted its own May nonfarm payroll forecast to 600,000 from 500,000.

Sound like a blowout?

Well, maybe. Any sharp jump would be welcome for a labor market coming out of an economic collapse, to be sure. But many experts agree that there will be some noise in tomorrow's report. Census jobs, which are heavily discounted in market observers' minds due to their short life spans and non-organic growth qualities, may account for over half of the total.

"The census number could be huge. It wouldn't surprise me to see

census growth of 400,000 or 500,000, or maybe a bigger number than that. So, the print could be enormous," said Phil Orlando, chief equity market strategist at Federated Investors. "You could end up with 600,000 or 700,000 print. But what you've got to do is then strip out the non-census from the census and see what the private payroll number is. I think if the

private employment number is over 200,000, the market will view that well. If it's south of 100,000, the market will view that poorly."

"We're absolutely convinced that the inflection point is here, that it's already happened, and we're adding positive, nonfarm jobs," he continued. "The question now is one of pace."

"I think, big picture, is that job growth this year has been consistently better than anyone expected coming in to the year," said Chris Low, chief economist at FTN Financial, who's expecting private payrolls to gain 240,000 and total nonfarm payrolls to add 660,000.

There are more than a few recent signals underpinning continuing hints of private sector growth. Earlier this week, the

Institute for Supply Management said an index reading manufacturing employment tracked higher, reading 59.8 in May from 58.5 in April.

"We're seeing the fastest job growth in the hardest hit sectors. Manufacturing, and travel and leisure are the biggest growth areas outside of the census," Low said. "The ISM manufacturing number was strong. We're continuing to see indications that companies let too many people go during the recession and they're re-hiring."

Just today, the same group said its

service sector employment measure also edged higher last month, reflecting expansion for the first time in over two years.

The market also got a separate read on private jobs today.

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, which offers a payroll gauge that discounts government hiring but has still varied widely ahead of government estimates of late, said private employers added another 55,000 jobs last month. The outfit also boosted its April totals, revising its mark to 65,000 new additions from 35,000.

The government revised

first-quarter productivity growth down to a weaker-than-expected 2.8% seasonally adjusted annual rate. Productivity hit 6.3% in the fourth quarter of 2009 and 7.8% the quarter before. The drop is telling, since a slowdown suggests managers may be getting less out of their thinned workforces, which could prompt a pickup in hiring.

But not all is completely well. Just this week, both


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said they are making plans to lay off employees.

"I think there's a lot of churn in the labor market right now, which is why you're probably seeing a lot of hiring and a lot of firing still," said Mike Feroli, chief U.S. economist at JPMorgan Chase, who's looking for employers to add 545,000 to nonfarm payrolls in May.

Despite the news, one consulting firm said nationwide layoffs appeared to have waned to around pre-recession levels. On Tuesday, Challenger, Gray & Christmas said announced job cuts edged just 1.3% higher last month. Employers planned to shed 38,810 positions in May, which was down 65% from the same time last year.

But despite whatever optimism may exist for tomorrow's report, the nation's so-called "underemployment rate," which includes part-time workers looking for full-time positions and those who stopped looking all together, stood at a whopping 17.1% in April.

Many market observers agree that any near-term headwind to the labor market may come out of the eurozone, which has roiled global markets over concerns of spreading sovereign debt risk.

"There's reason to believe

the labor market should continue to get better. Obviously, the big wild card is this fear of contagion out of Europe," Low said. "But even that is, I think, unlikely to be a huge problem for us. Most of the trade that we do in Europe is with Germany and France, and Germany appears to benefiting from the European turmoil because their exports are picking up thanks to the drop in the euro. Again, I don't think the threat is as big as the markets are making it out to be."

But Orlando said the eurozone contagion risk, coupled with other signs of instability around the globe -- the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, the prospect of slowing economic growth in China, along with geopolitical tensions in Israel and the Korean peninsula -- could present headline risk that may affect the psychology of managers. While the risk is fleeting, he wonders whether this mixed bag could impact hiring plans.

"So, if you're a business owner in the United States, none of this matters to you," Orlando said. "But you're sitting there saying, 'is the world coming off its hinges again? Is this the fourth quarter of 2008, again? Maybe I ought not to be bringing on that marginal employee I was thinking of hiring."

--Written by Sung Moss in New York