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.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate fell to 8.5%, the lowest level since February 2009.

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.¬†

Economists surveyed by CNNMoney had forecast 150,000 jobs added in the month, and expected the unemployment rate to tick up to 8.7%.

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.

But the job market still has a long way to go to recover from the financial crisis. About 8.8 million jobs were lost since 2008, and less than a third of those have been gained back.

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