'Sharp drop'

In a statement, Keith Hall, the commissioner of labour statistics, said: "January's sharp drop in employment brings job losses to 3.6 million since the start of the recession in December 2007."

Hall said "about half the decline occurred in the last three months".

January's losses followed upwardly revised cuts of 577,000 in December and 597,000 in November.

Breaking down January's figures, the manufacturing sector lost jobs at the sharpest rate in more than 26 years, shedding 207,000 workers after cutting 162,000 in December.

The last time more factory jobs were lost in a single month was in October 1982 when 221,000 were cut.

An index measuring total paid hours for factory workers dropped to its lowest level since 1940, department officials said.

Construction industries dropped 111,000 jobs in January after 86,000 in December and Hall said that pace of the cuts was accelerating.

Retail businesses cut another 45,000 positions after shedding 82,700 jobs in December.