Key Points:

Growing numbers of women in the workforce pushed New Zealand's unemployment rate down to a new record of 3.4 per cent in the December quarter.

The rate dropped 0.1 of a percentage point from the September quarter, which itself had been the lowest unemployment rate recorded since the Household Labour Force Survey started in 1986.

Publishing the data today, Statistics New Zealand (SNZ) said the latest survey also recorded the most people in employment and in the labour force, as well as the highest labour force participation rate.

During the December quarter the female unemployment rate decreased to 3.5 per cent, the lowest rate recorded by the survey, while the male unemployment rate increased slightly to 3.4 per cent.

Seasonally adjusted, the number of people unemployed decreased by 2000 or 2.8 per cent, to 77,000, while the numbers employed rose 23,000 or 1.1 per cent to 2.17 million.

The sharp rise in the number of jobs created was well above economists' forecasts of a 0.4 per cent increase.

The steep rise in employment is likely to put further upward pressure on interest rates and the New Zealand dollar.

The New Zealand dollar immediately responded, rising to US78.9c from US78.5c.

Part time employment decreased slightly during the quarter, down 1000 or 0.2 per cent to 489,000, while full time employment was up by 26,000 or 1.6 per cent to 1.69m.

Female employment was up 26,000 or 2.6 per cent during the quarter to 1.01m, due entirely to increases in full time employment. Male employment was down 3000 or 0.2 per cent to 1.16m.

With the number of people in the labour force growing at a faster rate than the working-age population, the labour force participation rate grew by 0.5 percentage points to 68.8 per cent, SNZ said.

The growth in the labour force was entirely driven by females, whose participation rate increased by 1.2 percentage points to 62.4 per cent. The male participation rate was down by 0.2 percentage points.

The working age population recorded stronger growth in the December quarter than in the previous two quarters due to positive permanent and long term migration figures, rising 11,700 or 0.4 per cent to 3.27m, SNZ said.

New Zealand's unemployment rate is fifth lowest in the OECD, and compares with 5.5 per cent for the whole of the OECD.

Today's data is a further indication of a tight labour market, following figures earlier this week which showed continuing demand for workers and strong income growth. They highlight the difficult job faced by the Reserve Bank in trying to hold inflation amid rising prices for energy and food, and higher interest rates.

The unemployment rate for Maori dropped from 8 per cent to 7.3 per cent in the December quarter, for Europeans it was down from 2.4 per cent to 2.3 per cent, and for Pacific peoples it declined from 5.5 per cent to 4.7 per cent.