In a hopeful sign for the economy, the nation's rate of job losses appeared to retreat as the government reported that 20,000 jobs were shed in April.

Economists had been bracing for a number closer to 75,000.

With the April numbers, the nation's unemployment rate dropped to 5 percent from 5.1 percent in March.

Also this morning, the Commerce Department is reporting that orders to U.S. factories rose 1.4 percent in March, an improvement from a drop in February.

In the previous three months, the economy lost 240,000 jobs, with 81,000 reductions in March.

Jobs were lost in manufacturing, retail trade and construction but were gained in health care and professional services.

Economists hope that early 2008 will prove to have been the most difficult period for the nation's economy and anticipate that the job market will improve as lower interest rates filter through the economy and the effects of the nation's economic stimulus plan bolster consumer spending.

The stock market has rebounded sharply in recent weeks, a trend that was continuing today

In the first hour of trading, the Dow Jones industrial average rose 84.92, or 0.65 percent, to 13,094.92.

Broader stock indicators also rose. The Standard & Poor's 500 index advanced 10.21, or 0.72 percent, to 1,419.55, and the Nasdaq composite index rose 13.99, or 0.56 percent, to 2,494.70.

The weak housing market remains a drag on the broader national economy, the Labor Department figures released this morning show.

Construction lost an additional 61,000 jobs in April, bringing its total contraction in this housing cycle to 457,000 lost jobs since September 2006.

But the longer-run trend is troubling. The number of unemployed people increased to 7.6 million in April from 6.8 million in the same month last year.

In addition, the number of people working part time but wanting full-time employment rose by 306,000 in April to 5.2 million. The April figure was 849,000 more workers than April 2007 in similar circumstances.

The latest snapshot of the nationwide employment conditions - while clearly still weak - was better than many economists were anticipating. They were bracing for job cuts of 75,000 and for the unemployment rate to climb to 5.2 percent.

The unemployment rate, derived from a different statistical survey than the payroll figures, fell to 5 percent from 5.1 percent in March. That survey showed more people finding employment than those who didn't.

Businesses are handing out pink slips as they cope with an economy that is teetering on the edge of a recession, or possibly in one already. A severe housing slump, harder-to-get credit and financial turmoil have forced people and businesses to be more cautious in their spending. And that has hurt the economy.

In April, construction companies slashed 61,000 jobs. Manufacturers cut 46,000 and retailers got rid of 27,000. Those losses were eclipsed by job gains in education and health care, professional and business services, the government and elsewhere.

The job losses came in areas hardest hit by the housing and credit debacles. The fact that fewer job cuts were ordered in April raised hopes that damage could be limited.

Voters are keenly worried about the country's economic problems and so are politicians - in Congress, in the White House and on the campaign trail.

Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., the Chicago outplacement firm that tracks layoff announcements, said April was indeed the cruelest month, as poet T.S. Eliot said, although Eliot wasn't referring to job cuts.

The most recent record of job cuts was the 100,315 announced in September 2006, the company said.

Among the cuts announced in April were 250 layoffs locally by Wyeth, the Madison, N.J., pharmaceutical company that employs 50,000 - 5,300 in the Philadelphia region.

The brightest outlook comes from Monster.com, which tracks online job postings. Activity increased in April, but the Monster folks say it is primarily seasonal. It is still down significantly from last year.