The US capped its best year for employment in 15 years with a healthy gain in December, pushing the unemployment rate to a six-year low.

The numbers support expectations that the economy will strengthen further this year even as overseas economies stumble.

The US Labor Department said on Friday that employers added 252,000 jobs last month, and 50,000 more in October and November combined than it had previously estimated.

The unemployment rate dropped to 5.6 percent from 5.8 percent in November, its lowest point since 2008.

It also represented a sharp fall from 6.7 percent a year ago and the ten percent peak in October 2009.

"2014 ends with a bang," Chris Low at FTN Financial told AFP, pointing out that even industries that might have suffered from the sharp oil price decline still showed strength.

Gains widespread

The job increases were strongest in professional and business services, restaurants and bars, and the construction industry, underscoring the healthy growth in the US services sector, while gains in manufacturing were small.

However, hourly earnings, one sign of just how strong the economy is, fell back, almost totally reversing the previous month's surprise gain. Hourly earnings were up just 1.7 percent from a year ago, just keeping up with inflation.

Most analysts said the strong headline job numbers will keep the US Federal Reserve on track to raise interest rates towards the middle of the year, even without signs of inflationary pressure.

The economy's steady improvement is especially striking compared with the weakness in much of the world.

Europe is barely growing, and its unemployment rate is nearly double the US level.

Japan, the world's third-largest economy, is in recession, while Russia's economy is cratering as oil prices plummet.

China is straining to manage a slowdown. Brazil and others in Latin America are struggling.

Source: Agencies