New Zealand's unemployment rate has come in lower than expected in the first quarter, indicating the labour market was more resilient during last year's economic doldrums.

The jobless rate fell 0.1 percentage point to 6.6 per cent in the first quarter, according to Statistics New Zealand's Household Labour Force Survey.

That's lower than the 6.7 per cent forecast in a Reuters survey, though the December quarter's data was revised down to 6.7 per cent from the 6.8 per cent reported when unemployment unexpectedly widened.

The kiwi dollar jumped after the report was released.

The labour force participation rate crept up 0.8 percentage points to 68.7 per cent, the highest level since December 2008, in a sign jobs are becoming easier to come by.

"There has also been a steady rise in trend employment since the September 2009 quarter," said Diane Ramsay, labour market statistics manager at Statistics NZ, in a statement. "These results indicate signs of continued strengthening in the labour market."

The New Zealand dollar rose to 79.37 US cents from 79.02 cents immediately before the report was released.

Unemployment is typically a lagging indicator with lay-offs coming at the end of the business cycle, and has held back the economic recovery by keeping a lid on consumer spending as households take advantage of low interest rates to repay debt.

The Feb. 22 earthquake in Christchurch, which killed more than 180 people and will probably push out the government's cash deficit to 9 per cent of gross domestic product, meant more than a third of Canterbury residents normally surveyed didn't take part, and as such the effects of the temblor won't be apparent in today's data.

In a note before the statement, ANZ New Zealand economists Khoon Goh and Mark Smith said employment data earlier this week suggested the labour market was "steadily strengthening prior to the February earthquake. We believe the quake will provide only a temporary blip in the trend."

Two days ago, government data showed ordinary time salaries and wages rose 0.4 per cent in first quarter, down from the 0.5 per cent improvement in both the December and September quarters, with private sector wages up 0.3 per cent.

Wage growth lagged behind inflation, which took a 2 percentage point lift last year's hike in consumption tax, and given the Reserve Bank more room to keep the official cash rate at a record low 2.5 per cent. Governor Alan Bollard slashed 50 basis points from the benchmark rate in March to shore up confidence after the February quake.

The total number of people employed rose 1.4 per cent in the period to 2.2 million, the most since June 2008, while those not in the labour force dropped 2.2 per cent to 1.1 million.

The number of people employed part-time rose 4 per cent from the previous quarter, while full-time jobs rose 0.5 per cent. Of the 486,200 part-timers, more than a fifth said they want to work more hours.

The number of actual hours worked fell 0.9 per cent to an average 69,800 per week, though usual hours worked increased 1.7 per cent to an average 68,800 per week.

Still, youth unemployment remained high at 27.5 per cent for 15- to 19-year-olds, up 2 percentage points, while 13.5 per cent of 20- to 24-year-olds were out of work, up 2.2 percentage points.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett yesterday announced a $55.2 million injection to help cut youth joblessness, with bigger work and training subsidies for employers willing to take on young staff.

New Zealand's unemployment rate is the 11th-lowest in the OECD, equal with Israel.