With the election now over and expectations for a fourth interest rate hike firmly in place, Friday's employment report might seem anticlimactic.

But the data will still receive plenty of attention on Wall Street, and this time it could be good attention. While labor market indicators have been mixed, the bulk of the evidence points to an in-line or even slightly better-than-expected number.

Officially, economists are predicting that 175,000 jobs were added to the payroll in October, up from just 96,000 in September. The unemployment rate is slated to hold steady at 5.4% and average hourly earnings are seen climbing 0.3% after a 0.2% rise in September.

Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at High Frequency Economics, said he expects the data to surpass consensus estimates. "A post-hurricane bounce and friendlier seasonal factors will generate an October payroll gain of 200,000 or so," he said.

Although projections vary as to how much the September data were depressed by four hurricanes that swept through the southern U.S., economists say any impact was probably reversed in October.

Meanwhile, a number of surveys suggest that labor market conditions improved last month. In the consumer confidence survey, for example, those saying jobs are plentiful increased to 17.4% in October from 16.6% the month before. Those claiming jobs are hard to get declined slightly to 27.8% from 28.0% in September.

In addition, data from outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas show that planned job cuts fell 5.6% in October, although they remained above 100,000 for a second straight month.

Anecdotal evidence from recruiting firms across the country also points to a pickup in job growth last month. According to an article by

Market News International

, U.S. recruiters have been "very encouraged by the demand for labor in October, with the consensus anywhere from 'steady growth' to a strong upsurge." The "Reality Check" story has had a good track record of accurately predicting the direction of nonfarm payrolls relative to consensus estimates over the past seven years.

Economists say job gains probably came from the services sector in October rather than from manufacturing. According to the Institute for Supply Management, manufacturing employment rose at a slower pace last month while services employment increased at a faster rate.

"Given the greater weight of services in the economy, this suggests that there may be some upside risk to the consensus payroll forecast of 175,000," said Sherry Cooper, chief economist at BMO Nesbitt Burns.

Of course, some economists remain skeptical. Ethan Harris of Lehman Brothers is calling for just 115,000 job gains in October and said this is "hardly the type of report that convinces the

Federal Reserve

to quicken the pace of its tightening."

The Central Bank is widely expected to raise interest rates by 25 basis points next Wednesday but the odds of a fifth rate hike in December remain under 50%.

Harris doesn't believe the September jobs data were affected by the hurricanes as much as other economists have theorized and therefore he isn't expecting a sizeable bounce back. The Bureau of Labor Statistics said severe weather seemed to hold down job growth in September but not significantly.

High Frequency's Shepherdson also added a caveat to his generally upbeat forecast for October. "We are braced for the run of very soft payroll numbers to continue, October's likely rebound notwithstanding," he said.

Shepherdson said the decline in the Conference Board's Help Wanted index is a particularly ominous sign. After appearing to stabilize in July and August, the index fell to 36 in September, a cycle low first reached in May 2003. That prompted the board's economist Ken Goldstein to say that the labor market "could even be losing momentum going into the final months of 2004."

The general public seems worried, too. The percentage of consumers who expect fewer jobs to become available in the coming months rose to 18.4% in October from 16.2% in the previous month, according to the Conference Board. Those anticipating more jobs to become available slipped to 16.5% from 17.8%.

With so many factors working against the consumer over the next few months, strong job creation will be crucial to maintaining a healthy level of spending.

In the third quarter, consumer spending rose at a solid 4.6% clip, but economists say that pace is unsustainable given that tax relief is fading, oil prices are still elevated, interest rates are on the rise, personal savings are at historically low levels and real wage growth is declining.

"Consumer spending in the fourth quarter is predicted to show a noteworthy slowing," said Asha Bangalore, an economist at Northern Trust.