Job fair signPrivate employers added an astonishing 297,000 jobs in December, ADP (ADP) announced Wednesday. That's the third straight month of significant gains and the biggest since November 2007 -- a total that offers more hope and some additional evidence that the U.S. job market is recovering.

A Bloomberg survey had expected private employers to add 100,000 jobs in December, after adding a revised to 92,000 jobs in November, down slightly from the initial estimate of 93,000, and 79,000 in October.

"This month's ADP National Employment Report suggests nonfarm private employment grew very strongly in December, at a pace well above what is usually associated with a declining unemployment rate. After a mid-year pause, employment seems to have accelerated," ADP said.

Construction Ends a Three-Year Losing Streak

Separately, private placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas said planned layoff announcements in December by U.S. employers fell 34% to 32,000 in December from about 49,000 in November. That brought 2010 layoffs to about 530,000, the lowest total since 1997 and a 59% reduction from 2009, when job losses reached a seven-year high.

ADP's December report showed that job gains were concentrated in services and in small and midsize businesses. Services added 270,000 jobs -- the sector's largest monthly increase on record, ADP said. Small businesses added 117,000 jobs; midsize businesses, 144,000; and large businesses, 36,000.

Construction employment was unchanged in December -- but that ends the more than three-year-long monthly losing steak that started in June 2007. Goods producers added 27,000 jobs, manufacturing employment increased by 23,000 and financial services added 8,000 jobs.

Overall, the near-300,000 job gain is a substantially stronger performance by the private sector, and it does suggest that job growth is picking up. But the usual qualifiers apply. Namely, it's only one month of impressive data, and that's not nearly enough to suggest a strong growth trend has formed. The job market could retrench in January, with the private sector hiring few workers or even shedding them.

Second, the U.S. job deficit from the Great Recession remains huge: The economy is short about 15 million to 17 million full-time jobs. That means the U.S. will have to sustain outsize job growth over several years -- not months -- to return to a more reasonable unemployment rate around 6%. Still, adding 297,000 private sector jobs is a good way to start.

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