WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. service companies grew at a faster pace in December, helped by an economy that gained strength in the final months of the year.

An increase in new orders and stronger imports drove the modest expansion in a sector that employs roughly 90 percent of the work force. But a gauge of hiring showed many service firms were hesitant to add workers.

The Institute for Supply Management says its index of non-manufacturing activity rose to 52.6 in December. That's slightly above the reading of 52 in November, which was the lowest since January 2010, but well below last year's high of 59.7 recorded in February.

Any reading above 50 indicates expansion.

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