By CHRISTOPHER S. RUGABERWASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Job growth probably continued at a modest but steady pace last month, buoyed by consumer spending and strength in the housing and auto industries. Economists forecast that employers added 152,000 jobs in February, according to a survey by FactSet, about the same as in January. The unemployment rate likely dipped to 7.8 percent from 7.9 percent. The Labor Department is scheduled to release the jobs report at 8:30 a.m. EST Friday. More hiring is needed to swiftly reduce the unemployment rate, which has been stuck at 7.8 percent or above since September. Job gains of at least 100,000 a month are needed just to keep up with population growth and prevent the unemployment rate from rising. From November through January, monthly job growth has averaged 200,000, up from 150,000 for the previous three months. Most economists expect job gains of about 180,000 a month this year. That's about the same as last year, when the rate fell 0.7 percentage point. Some analysts say the snowstorm that struck several Northeast states in early February might have held down hiring last month by about 30,000. Others note that the storm hit on a weekend and might not have kept that many people from work. Several other reports this week have raised hopes that hiring could soon accelerate. A four-week average of applications for unemployment aid fell to its lowest level in five years. Applications are a proxy for layoffs. When they fall, it suggests that companies are cutting fewer jobs. More hiring may follow. And payroll services provider ADP said its survey showed that businesses added 198,000 jobs in February, above most analysts' expectations. And January's hiring was revised higher by 23,000 to 215,000. Small businesses have stepped up hiring in the past two months after lagging behind hiring by bigger companies since the recession ended in June 2009.