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December is generally a bad time to look for work, and even worse now that the unemployment rate is nearing double digits. But there's reason for some optimism in the holidays.

Job openings are at their highest level in two years, according to new government data. And a private-sector survey predicts the next few months will be the best time for hiring since the financial crisis erupted.

That should come as some comfort to job-seekers, especially after last week's report that the unemployment rate rose to 9.8 percent in November and the economy added a scant 39,000 jobs.

Recruiters say the data, taken together, suggest job hunters should keep plugging away. Yes, it's a tight labor market and many hiring managers take time off over the holidays. But so do many job-seekers.

"That can work to the advantage of a job-seeker who doesn't take a break, who really keeps going," said Jennifer Schramm, a spokeswoman for the Society for Human Resource Management.

Analysts say job openings are a good indication of the hiring picture ahead because it can take up to three months to fill most jobs.

Businesses and government advertised nearly 3.4 million jobs at the end of October, up about 12 percent from the previous month, the Labor Department said Tuesday in its Job Openings and Labor Turnover survey.

That reverses two months of declines and is the highest total since August 2008, just before the financial crisis intensified.

Jonathan Basile, an economist at Credit Suisse, said the report echoes other recent data showing that the economy is improving. Factories are busier, retail spending is up, and consumer confidence is also rising. Those improvements will likely translate into more hiring soon, he said.

Overall, the number of advertised jobs has increased by about 1 million, or 44 percent, since the low point of July 2009, a month after the recession ended. But openings are still far below the 4.4 million advertised in December 2007, when the recession began.

A new survey by staffing company Manpower Inc. suggests businesses are ready to pick up the pace. Manpower's U.S. hiring index rose to 9 percent for the January-March quarter of 2011, from 5 percent in the October-December quarter of 2010.

That's the highest in two years, but still far below the 20 percent that the index averaged from 2003 to 2007.