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Job reports paint mixed picture

By Chavon Sutton and Blake Ellis, staff reporters

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Uncertainly about the future prospects for jobs in America got even foggier Wednesday as two reports on job cuts revealed conflicting results.

A report from Automatic Data Processing, a firm that collects monthly payroll data, suggested that the pace of job cuts may be slowing. But a separate report from Challenger, which predicts job cuts based on forward-looking announcements from companies, said planned cuts hit a 5-month high in January.

ADP (ADP, Fortune 500) said private-sector employers cut 22,000 jobs in January, marking the smallest decline since February of 2008. Economists surveyed by Briefing.com had forecast a loss of 30,000 jobs in January.

The number of cuts in December was revised down to 61,000 from the previously reported 84,000.

"We aren't doing a whole lot of hiring yet, but I think you can safely say the firing is starting to stop," said John Canally, an economist at LPL Financial. "And this shows that we're close to adding more jobs."

The service sector reported an increase of 38,000 jobs in January, marking the second consecutive month of job growth for that sector following a 21-month decline.

The figure was offset by a loss of 60,000 in the goods-producing sector and a drop of 25,000 manufacturing jobs, which marked its lowest level since January, 2008.

In a separate report Wednesday, outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc, said planned job cuts had accelerated in January.

"[The Challenger report] uses a different metric," said Canally. "The job cut announcements aren't actual layoffs, they are plans in place to cut jobs in the future, but not all of those end up being lost -- some are unfilled positions and some are added back later."

Challenger said employers announced 71,482 layoffs in January, reversing what had been a steady decline in layoff announcements.

January's figure is up 59% from December 2009, when layoffs fell to a 24-month low of 45,094. But it was a sharp drop from the 241,749 cuts announced a year ago.

"It is not uncommon to see a surge in job-cut announcements to begin the year," said Challenger CEO John Challenger. "Companies are making adjustments based on the previous year's results and the outlook for the year ahead.

The retail and telecom sectors were the hardest hit in January, with 16,737 and 14,010 job cuts, respectively. Last month Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500) said it would shed 11,200 positions at its Sam's Clubs Warehouse outlets, and Verizon Communications (VZ, Fortune 500), announced 13,000 layoffs.

"The beginning of the year is particularly rough on retail workers, as [their] employers enter one of the slower sales periods of the year," Challenger said.

Despite the monthly decline, Canally said the report signals future job growth.

"This is still pretty much a decade-low for job cut announcements, which shows that the economy is probably about to turn around," said Canally. "The outlook is getting clearer, so I wouldn't be too concerned about this bump in January."

Wednesday's reports precede the closely watched monthly jobs report from the Labor Department due Friday. That's expected to show employment levels essentially unchanged in January, according to a consensus of economists polled by Briefing.com, compared to a loss of 85,000 jobs in December.

The unemployment rate is expected to remain unchanged at 10%. To top of page

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