By John S. McClenahen Worries about the pace and direction of the U.S. economy are clearly keeping companies from hiring. And that could mean GDP growth substantially lower than the 3.5% that Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan has projected for full-year 2002. "Job gains need to be stronger than the 6,000 posted for July for consumer spending to hold up," says Bruce Steinberg, chief economist at Merrill Lynch & Co., New York. There are some encouraging statistics. For example, initial claims for unemployment insurance fell to 376,000 for the week ending Aug. 3, a decrease of 15,000 from the previous week, reports the U.S. Labor Department. And the department's four-week moving average is down to 379,000, also well below the 400,000 level that suggests a more stable job market. The next reading on job gains will be on Sept. 6, when the Labor Department is slated to release August's employment data.