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Originally published Thursday, March 8, 2012 at 9:03 PM

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Another month of strong hiring expected for Feb.

Employers likely added more than 200,000 jobs for a third straight month in February, adding to evidence that the recovery is building momentum.

AP Economics Writer

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WASHINGTON —

Employers likely added more than 200,000 jobs for a third straight month in February, adding to evidence that the recovery is building momentum.

Economists forecast that the economy likely generated a net gain of 210,000 jobs, according to FactSet. That's below January's 243,000 jobs but still a healthy figure. The unemployment rate, which has fallen for five straight months, is projected to stay 8.3 percent.

If the unemployment rate were to fall for a sixth straight month, it would mark the first such streak since 1984.

It will be hard to match the jobs report for January. The employment gains came from across many industries and up and down the pay scale. Manufacturing, restaurants and hotels, retail, and professional services such as accounting all reported big job gains.

A key reason why the unemployment rate has dropped since last year is that many out-of-work people have stopped looking for work. Only people without jobs who are actively seeking one are counted as unemployed.

A sustained rise in the number of people looking for jobs would be a good sign, even if it pushed up the unemployment rate.

Friday's report comes as a host of data points to an improving economy and job market. Weekly applications for unemployment benefits have fallen about 14 percent in six months. Though they ticked up last week, average applications remain near a four-year low.

On Wednesday, payroll provider ADP said businesses added 216,000 employees last month, up from January's total. (The ADP report doesn't include governments, which have been cutting jobs.)

And service companies, which employ most Americans, are expanding at a faster pace, according to a private survey released this week. A gauge of employment shows that service firms are still hiring, particularly in the mining, educational services, and transportation and warehousing industries.

The service sector includes everything from restaurants and hotels to health care firms and financial service companies.

Some companies must hire because they can't squeeze more output from their current staffs. Last year, worker productivity rose at its slowest pace in nearly 25 years. That means companies will likely have to add staff to meet growing demand.

Other figures point to the same conclusion. Employees are working more hours, a good sign for future hiring. In January, workers put in an average 34.5 hours a week. That's up from 33.8 in the recession and almost back to pre-recession levels of 34.6.

As average hours near normal levels, companies won't be able to demand further time from their employees and will likely have to hire more.

Faster economic growth is spurring more job growth. The economy expanded at a 3 percent annual rate in the final three months of last year, the government said last week. Growth will likely slow in the current quarter, but pick up later this year.

Economists forecast growth of 2.5 percent in 2012, according to the AP Economy Survey. That would be an improvement from last year's 1.7 percent pace.

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