Few U.S. companies plan to step up hiring in the next six months although they do expect the economy to be a bit stronger this year, according to a poll released on Monday.

The National Association for Business Economics' industry survey found that two-thirds of respondents expected no change in employment at their companies over the first half of the year. That was the highest share in recent quarters.

Although the U.S. jobless rate fell to a near three-year low of 8.5 percent in December, fewer businesses said they would hire more workers, compared with the previous industry poll.

The survey, which was conducted between December 15 2011, and January 5 2012, found that 65 percent of respondents expect gross domestic product growth to exceed 2 percent between the fourth quarter of last year and the last quarter of 2012.

That was higher than the 1.6 percent growth rate economists polled by Reuters found.

About two-thirds of the companies surveyed said the European debt crisis would have little impact on their sales over the first half the year, while 27 percent of respondents said they expected to see a decline in sales of 10 percent or less.

(Reporting By Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Jan Paschal)