The U.S. job market improved in January for the fifth consecutive month, pointing to possible job growth in the first quarter of this year, a research group said on Monday.

The Conference Board, a private research group, said its Employment Trends Index climbed to 93.2 in January from an upwardly revised 92.3 in December, which was originally reported as 91.8.

It was the highest index level reading since January 2009, when it stood at 93.8.

The index is still down 0.7 percent from one year ago, according to the group.

The continued rise in the Employment Trends Index makes us more optimistic that job growth will resume in the first quarter of 2010, said Gad Levanon, associate director of macroeconomic research at The Conference Board.

Government data on Friday showed that U.S. employers shed 20,000 jobs in January, even though the unemployment rate fell to 9.7 percent from 10 percent in December. Analysts had forecast jobs growth in January.

(Reporting by Chris Reese; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)