U.S. companies stepped up hiring last month, a private survey showed Wednesday. And the government says fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week.

The latest data point to steady job growth, an encouraging sign before Friday's government report on June employment.

Further job gains could lower the unemployment rate, which is still high at 7.6 percent, and help economic growth rebound in the second half of the year.

If growth accelerated and unemployment fell, the Federal Reserve might start to scale back its stimulus bond purchases before the year ends.

"The labor market remains one of the healthiest parts of the economy right now," Ethan Harris, global economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said.

Economists forecast that the June jobs report will show employers added 165,000 jobs. That's roughly in line with the average of 175,000 jobs a month the economy has gained in the past 12 months. The unemployment rate is expected to remain at 7.6 percent. That's down from 8.2 percent a year ago.

Yesterday's reports had some economists suggesting the June job gains could be higher than forecast.

However, the private survey, done by the payroll services company ADP, has frequently diverged from the government's figures. In three of the past four months, it has been lower than the official figures. That could be a sign Friday's figure will be much higher than forecast.

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