American employers stepped up their hiring in December, bringing the unemployment rate down again.
The economy added 200,000 jobs in the month, the Labor Department reported Friday, closing out the year with 1.6 million jobs gained in 2011. Only 940,000 jobs were added the year before.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate fell to 8.5%, its lowest level since February 2009.
"This is a good solid report, and the big message here is that 2011 was much better than 2010," said Scot Melland, CEO of Dice Holdings, a provider of career websites. "We're headed in the right direction."
The encouraging news was coupled with revisions to the Labor Department's data going back five years, which showed the unemployment rate has fallen for four consecutive months.
While private businesses have been adding jobs consistently since March 2010, the government has been slashing payrolls. In December, private employers added 212,000 jobs, and the public sector cut 12,000 jobs.
The manufacturing, health care and education industries were all bright spots in December, each adding more than 20,000 jobs. Even the construction industry, which had been bleeding jobs the two prior months, hired another 17,000 workers.
Retail and the food services jobs were also on the rise, but in spite of the Labor Department's seasonal adjustments, some analysts caution that these positions could be related to holiday hiring.
Still, more than 13 million people remain unemployed in the United States, and 42.5% of them have been so for six months or more.
Overall, the job market has a long way to go to fully recover from the financial crisis. The economy still needs to add about 6 million jobs to get back to 2008 employment levels.