Employers added 74,000 jobs in December as payroll growth slowed significantly after several months of solid gains.

That's the smallest number of job gains since July 2011. The unemployment rate, fell from 7% to 6.7%, lowest since October 2008, the Labor Department said Friday.

Economists surveyed by USA TODAY had estimated a gain of 205,000 jobs last month. Nearly a third raised their projections after a private payroll survey this week showed businesses adding 238,000 jobs in December, the most in 13 months.

Businesses added 87,000 jobs. Federal, state and local governments cut 13,000.

Job gains for November were revised to 241,000 from 203,000.

The economy and labor market have shown signs of ratcheting higher recently after 4 ½ years of mostly sluggish growth. Net job gains were over 200,000 from August through November, vs. 180,000 the first seven months of the year.

Manufacturing, the housing recovery and consumer spending all have picked up recently. A recent budget deal in Congress that tempers federal spending cuts has eased uncertainty among corporations, many of which are flush with cash, igniting plans for more capital spending. And a falling trade deficit has prompted many analysts to raise their estimates of economic growth last quarter to more than 3% at an annual rate.

Meanwhile, household wealth is near record levels and consumers have shed much of the debt that hampered their spending after the Great Recession.

The encouraging news led the Federal Reserve last month to trim its $85 billion in monthly bond purchases, which are aimed at holding down interest rates and stimulating growth.

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WASHINGTON (AP) - U.S. employers added a scant 74,000 jobs in December, the fewest in three years.

The disappointing gain ends 2013 on a weak note after recent economic reports had raised hopes for a strong finish.

The Labor Department says the unemployment rate fell from 7 percent in November to 6.7 percent, the lowest level since October 2008. But the drop occurred partly because more Americans stopped looking for jobs. The government counts people as unemployed only if they are actively searching for work.

Cold weather may have slowed hiring. Construction firms cut 16,000 jobs, the biggest drop in 20 months.

December's hiring is far below the average gain of 214,000 jobs a month in the preceding four months. But monthly gains averaged 182,000 last year, nearly matching the previous two years.

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