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February Jobs Report Seen Weakening From January

After a blowout payrolls number in January thanks to warm weather, economists expect an unimpressive count.

The watchwords for the February

employment report

, due out tomorrow morning at 8:30 a.m. EST, are: weather, Census and

Boeing

(BA) - Get Report

.

Economists polled by

Reuters

are predicting, on average, that

nonfarm payrolls

, the first-reported component of the jobs report, grew by 206,000 in February. But their estimates range from 150,000 to 325,000 depending on how they're handicapping those three factors.

Weather is key because it accounted for the wide margin by which most economists missed last month's payrolls number. Payrolls grew by 387,000 in January, compared to an average forecast of 255,000. But the markets took it in stride because 116,000 of those jobs were created in the construction sector. Over the previous 12 months, construction created an average of just 18,000 new jobs.

February is payback time, the thinking goes. If unseasonably warm weather was responsible for nonfarm payroll growth running about 75,000 above trend in January, then a reversion to mean should produce a number below trend by about the same amount, according to the market research firm

Wrightson Associates

.

The big January gain (unless it's revised sharply lower) also makes it difficult for market participants to take much comfort in an unimpressive February number, the firm notes in its weekly newsletter: "The market would be pleased to see a payroll number under 200,000 on Friday morning, but the cumulative growth over the first two months of the year will do nothing to allay

Fed

Chairman Alan

Greenspan's

concerns about excessive labor market pressure."

The unusually short interval between the survey weeks for the January and February reports should also help keep the February payrolls number on the low side,

Salomon Smith Barney's

TheStreet Recommends

economists say.

Hiring for the Census is another wildcard in the February nonfarm payrolls number. The bulk of the hiring of temporary workers to conduct the population count starts this month, and could add 100,000 or more jobs to payroll counts in March, April and May, economists say. But

High Frequency Economics

chief U.S. economist Ian Shepherdson says Census hiring added 11,000 to payrolls in January and could add as many as 50,000 in February. Other economists expect a much smaller Census effect in tomorrow's report. The Census Bureau didn't immediately return a phone call seeking information on this point.

Then there's the Boeing engineers strike. It isn't clear whether 18,000 striking engineers remained on the payroll during the survey week. Some economists are inclined to think not, since the

Labor Department's

monthly strike report didn't capture the Boeing strike. If they didn't, manufacturing payrolls, which grew last month for just the fourth time in the last 22 months, adding 13,000 jobs, could shrink again.

The jobs report's other key components --

average hourly earnings

, the

unemployment rate

and the

average workweek

-- are expected to look familiar.

Average hourly earnings are seen rising 0.3%, the average gain over the previous 12 months.

The

unemployment rate

is seen holding steady at 4.0%, a 30-year low.

And the

average workweek

is expected to retreat a tenth to 34.5 hours from last month's 12-month high of 34.6 hours.

The Boeing strike would not impact the earnings or workweek numbers in any case, Wrightson Associates points out, since those series capture only production workers, a category that does not include engineers.