Consumers grew more optimistic about economic conditions in January, but continued to worry about the weak job market, according to a closely watched survey released Tuesday.

The Conference Board's consumer confidence index rebounded in January with a reading of 96.8, after dipping to 91.7 in December.

Economists had expected a stronger reading, even though the index hit its highest level since July 2002.

The University of Michigan two weeks ago said its consumer sentiment index jumped in early January to 103.2, well above what economists were expecting and a 92.6 reading in December.

The Conference Board's survey of 5,000 households showed the percentage of those who considered jobs hard to find fell slightly to 31.4%, but fewer people -- 12.4% -- thought jobs were plentiful.

Consumers were more optimistic about both present and future conditions, mirroring the University of Michigan survey's results.

The upbeat readings from consumers comes as the economy shows continuing signs of improvement and the stock market rally of 2003 extends into 2004.

The government will report economic growth figures for the final quarter of 2003 on Friday, with economists expecting annualized GDP growth of 5%, following a 8.2% surge in the third quarter, the best in two decades.

But strong economic growth has yet to yield anything resembling a robust job market. The economy created a mere 1,000 jobs in December, while modest employment gains in several prior months were revised significant lower.

The job market has baffled many economists during the current economic recovery, as forecasts for job creation continually fall short of the actual figures.

What's more, initial weekly jobless claims have touched three-year lows recently, with the number of claims below 400,000 -- thought to be the dividing line between growth and contraction in the labor market -- for the past three months.