A burst of hiring in December pushed the unemployment rate to its lowest level in nearly three years.
The Labor Department says employers added a net 200,000 jobs last month. They also say the unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent, the lowest since February 2009. It is the fourth straight months of drops in the unemployment rate.
For all of 2011, the economy added 1.6 million jobs; in 2010 approximately 940,000 were added. The unemployment rate averaged 8.9 percent last year, down from 9.6 percent the previous year.
Economists predict the job gains will top 2.1 million this year.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.