By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. job growth likely remained solid in November, with the unemployment rate falling, which could bring the Federal Reserve a step closer to curtailing its massive monetary stimulus.
Nonfarm payrolls are expected to have increased by 180,000 last month, according to a Reuters survey of economists. That would be down from October's 204,000 jobs gain and just off the 186,000 monthly average for the first 10 months of the year.
"October's stronger-than-expected payrolls report was probably not an aberration. Evidence points toward a pick-up in U.S. hiring this fall," said Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody's Analytics in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
First-time applications for unemployment benefits have been declining, small business hiring is improving and a national manufacturing survey on Monday showed a measure of factory jobs at its highest level in 1-1/2 years in November.
But some economists caution that because the Thanksgiving holiday was late in November, the government's survey of employers could yield a payrolls number below the Reuters consensus estimate.
"There is usually a lot of seasonal hiring in the run-up to the holiday season, concentrated in the retail sector," said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.
"Although this seasonal hiring could be anticipated by the seasonal factors (used to adjust the data), we have seen a few instances in the past where late Thanksgivings have resulted in softer November payroll data than the trend for the surrounding months."
The unemployment rate is forecast slipping a tenth of a percentage point to 7.2 percent after federal government employees returned to work.
Hundreds of thousands of federal government workers were furloughed during a 16-day partial shutdown of the government in October, causing distortions to the smaller survey of households from which the unemployment rate is calculated.
EYES ON THE FED
The Labor Department will release its closely watched employment report on Friday at 8:30 a.m., not long before the Fed's December 17-18 policy-setting meeting.
Minutes from the U.S. central bank's last meeting in October showed officials were preparing to reduce the pace of bond-buying in coming months as long as the economy continues to improve. A strong November employment report could put a December 'taper' of the Fed's monthly $85 billion bond-buying program on the table.
"Another month of solid job gains increases the probability that policymakers will taper when they meet," said Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank Securities in New York.
Some economists, however, believe the Fed will probably not want to pull the trigger before lawmakers on Capitol Hill strike a deal on the government budget and would want more data in hand to be sure that the job gains are sustainable. Many expect the Fed will wait until March to act.
"Relatively illiquid market conditions around year-end, in addition to the uncertainty over the holiday shopping season and the risk of another budget showdown in January, raise the hurdle for policymakers to begin tapering in December," said Michelle Girard, chief economist at RBS in Stamford, Connecticut.
"The odds of tapering in January are also relatively low, in our view, given the lack of a post-meeting press conference and the timing with respect to the transition in Fed leadership."
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is due to step down when his term expires at the end of January, almost certainly handing the reins to Fed Vice Chair Janet Yellen, who is awaiting confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
The anticipated job gains in November are expected to be broad-based, with even government payrolls rising, thanks to hiring by state and local governments as finances improve.
Manufacturing payrolls are expected to rise for a fourth straight month and construction employment likely added to October's gains even as the housing recovery slows. Employment in retail, leisure and hospitality, as well as professional and business services is also expected to increase.
Other details of the report are expected to show average hourly earnings rose by 0.2 percent after edging up 0.1 percent in October. The length of the workweek was expected to rise to an average of 34.5 hours from 34.4 hours.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by James Dalgleish)