WASHINGTON (AP) — Signs of improvement in the U.S. economy have emerged this week, and the jobs report the government will issue Friday will show whether that strength is fueling consistent hiring gains.

Analysts predict a solid gain of 177,000 jobs for August, just below this year's monthly average of 192,000. The unemployment rate is expected to remain at 7.4 percent.

Many economists were encouraged by data released this week. Reports showed that services companies are stepping up hiring and that a dwindling number of people are losing jobs. Americans are buying more cars than at any time since the recession began in December 2007. And U.S. factories expanded in August at their fastest pace in more than two years.

The August employment report will be the most significant economic data to be released before the Federal Reserve meets Sept. 17-18. Many economists expect the Fed to decide to slow its monthly bond purchases.