"We are still in a crisis-level jobs hole," says Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the liberal Economic Policy Institute.
Long-term unemployment remains a chronic problem. About 4.7 million people have been out of work for six months or more. That's down 15 percent in the past year. But it's still much higher than it's ever been after previous recessions.
Among the long-term unemployed is Will Nielsen, who has struggled to find work for more than a year. He worked as a contractor doing graphic design and video production for a startup company that went bust in December 2011.
The job search has been frustrating: Most of the jobs he's seen advertised are part-time or freelance. Permanent jobs with salaries and benefits seem to him nonexistent.
Contractors aren't eligible for unemployment benefits, so he's been relying on his girlfriend's salary, which has "strained" their relationship.
Nielsen, 37, who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif., applied last month for an electrician's apprenticeship program that would pay a stipend while he learned a new trade. But when he arrived at the training center to submit his application, at least 20 people were there ahead of him.
"It looked like the Great Depression," he said.
Yet the burst of hiring at the end of 2012 has raised hopes that the recovery from the Great Recession is finally strengthening.
"This could be a breakout year for the economy," Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group, wrote in a note to clients. "The economy, sales, employment and the stock market are all higher in spite of the bickering and rancor in Washington."
Kaltura, a New York-based online video software company, plans to hire 100 people in 2013, which would bring their staff to 300. The company has 17 open jobs.
Company President Michal Tsur said Kaltura has managed to benefit from the sluggish economy: Companies use its software to post training videos online, reducing the cost of training. Universities are also pushing online video courses to reach more students.