WASHINGTON - U.S. job openings rose in December and the number of unemployed workers fell, according to a government report on Tuesday that supported views the labor market was on the brink of recovery.

Job openings edged up to 2.5 million from 2.4 million in November, the Labor Department said in its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey. At the same time, the number of unemployed workers fell 73,000 to 15.3 million.

Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington said this meant there were 6.1 jobseekers per available job in December, slightly less than 6.3 in November.

Job openings appear to be stabilizing in recent months. In the first quarter of 2009, job openings declined an average of 197,000 per month, but in the last two quarters of 2009, job openings were basically flat, Mishel said.

However, for the labor market to recover, we must start seeing substantial increases. There is considerable ground to make up. Before the recession hit in 2007, there were 4.6 million job openings per month on average.

While the U.S. economy resumed growth in the second half of last year, the labor market has lagged the recovery. There are signs the jobs sector, ravaged by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s is on the mend.

Government data last week showed employers only cut 20,000 jobs in January after reducing payrolls by 150,000 in December. At the same time, factory payrolls increased for the first time in three years, while the total average workweek in January was the highest in a year.

We already know that the number of unemployed fell 430,000 to 14.8 million in January. If job openings in January remain at their December levels then the ratio of job openings per unemployed worker will fall to 5.9, said Mishel.

However, improvement will still leave this imbalance at a level far more than double the highest it reached in the prior recession.

The Labor Department report on Tuesday also showed hiring was little changed at 4.1 million in December. Total separations -- quits, layoff and discharges -- fell 36,000 to 4.2 million in December.

In the face of rough labor market conditions, workers are reluctant to change jobs. The quits rates, a measure of workers' willingness or ability to change jobs, decreased in the business sector and was unchanged for government in December, the report showed.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrew Hay)