WASHINGTON -- The unemployment rate, which has refused to budge from the 9 percent neighborhood for 2 1/2 frustrating years, suddenly dropped in November, driven in part by small businesses that finally see reason to hope and hire.

Economists said there was a long way to go, but they liked what they saw.

The rate fell to 8.6 percent, the lowest since March 2009. Unemployment passed 9 percent that spring and had stayed there or higher for all but two months since then.

The country added 120,000 jobs in November, the Labor Department said Friday. The economy has generated 100,000 or more jobs five months in a row -- the first time that has happened since April 2006, well before the Great Recession.

"Something good is stirring in the U.S. economy," Ian Shepherdson, an economist at High Frequency Economics, said in a note to clients.

The report showed that September and October were stronger months for the job market than first estimated. For four months in a row, the government has revised job growth figures higher for previous months.

September was revised up by 52,000 jobs, for a gain of 210,000. October was revised up by 20,000, for a gain of 100,000.

Unemployment peaked at 10.1 percent in October 2009, four months after the Great Recession ended.

It dipped to 8.9 percent last February and 8.8 percent last March, but otherwise was at or above 9 percent.

One of the most closely watched indicators of the economy's health were signs of improvement for small businesses, which employ 500 or fewer people and account for half the jobs in the private sector.

The government uses a survey of mostly large companies and government agencies to determine how many jobs were added or lost each month.

It uses a separate survey of households to determine the unemployment rate.

The household survey picks up hiring by companies of all sizes, including small businesses and companies just getting off the ground.

It also includes farm workers and the self-employed, who aren't included in the survey of companies.

The household survey has shown an average of 321,000 jobs created per month since July, compared with an average of 13,000 the first seven months of the year. When the economy is either improving or slipping into recession, many economists say, the household survey does the better job of picking up the shift because it detects small-business hiring.