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WASHINGTON |(Reuters) - Employers likely increased hiring in April, although not enough to lower the country's 8.2 percent jobless rate, keeping pressure on President Barack Obama ahead of his November re-election bid.
Employers likely added 170,000 workers to their payrolls last month, according to a Reuters survey of economists, up from March's meager print of 120,000.
That would allay fears the economy is losing momentum. But it also could dampen hopes that a stretch of strong winter hiring signaled a turning point for the economic recovery.
"We're still growing just gradually," said Nigel Gault, an economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts.
"Hiring is coming back into line with what you would expect with sluggish growth."
The Labor Department will release the April employment report on Friday at 8:30 a.m. EDT (1230 GMT).
The report, which regularly sets the tone for financial markets around the world, could rattle nerves at the White House. Weak growth and high unemployment create a formidable headwind for Obama, who entered office during the darkest days of the 2007-09 recession.
His Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, repeatedly has accused Obama of doing too little to foster job growth.
The unemployment rate, which soared to as high as 10 percent during Obama's first year in the office, is seen holding steady at 8.2 percent. After holding near 9 percent for most of last year, it fell sharply over the winter.
Still, it remains about 2 percentage points higher than its average over the last 50 years, and the Federal Reserve thinks it probably will not post a full recovery for at least several more years.
Nevertheless, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said last month the central bank is providing enough support for the economy, and an as-expected jobs report is unlikely to alter that stance.
So far this year, the labor market has given mixed signals.
During the winter, fast growth in payrolls led many analysts to think the economy was turning a corner. Then jobs growth braked in March, fueling fears the recovery was losing momentum.
Most economists think mild weather muddied the waters, boosting hiring in the winter but making March look weaker because companies had pulled hiring forward.
The consensus forecast for payroll gains in April is just below the average of the last six months. That's because economists think the weather effect is still dissipating.
"It's not that there's something wrong with the economy. Employment just got ahead of itself," said Robert Mellman, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.
The report is expected to show the private sector accounted for all the job gains in April, adding 175,000 new positions, with manufacturing registering another strong month.
However, a report from payroll processing firm ADP on Wednesday showed U.S. companies added only 119,000 jobs last month, suggesting economists' forecasts could be on the high side.
Public payrolls are expected to contract for the seventh time in eight months as state and local governments struggle with funding shortfalls, though the pace of public-sector job losses is slowing.
Wall Street analysts see economic growth holding at a lackluster 2.2 percent annual rate in the second quarter, matching its pace in the first three months of the year.
Average hourly earnings are seen rising 0.2 percent, while the length of the average work week is seen steady at 34.5 hours.
Even if hiring does slow a bit in the spring, a stable work week reinforces the view that economic growth remains on track.
"This shouldn't set off alarm bells," said Michael Gapen, an economist at Barclays in New York.