New Zealand's annual jobs growth shows the economy is moving in the right direction, with the unemployment rate falling to a 21-month low on a sharp rise in the number of part-time workers.

The unemployment rate fell to a seasonally adjusted 6.3 per cent in the three months ended Dec. 31, from 6.6 per cent the prior quarter, according to Statistics New Zealand's household labour force survey.

That's more than the 6.5 per cent rate picked in a Reuters survey of economists, and was bolstered by a 3 per cent rise in part-timers to 517,000 and a 0.2 percentage point decline in the participation rate to a 12-month low 68.2 per cent.

The number of people employed rose 0.1 per cent to 2.221 million in the December quarter, missing the 0.4 per cent growth forecast in the Reuters survey, and has grown 1.6 per cent on an annual basis.


"The trend is broadly positive, and suggests the economy is pushing forward," said Bank of New Zealand economist Doug Steel. "It gives us some confidence this trend will continue."

The falling headline jobless rate masked a 0.8 per cent decline in full-time workers to 1.703 million, the lowest number since December 2010, and a 1.4 per cent fall in the total weekly hours worked to 74.3 million. The number of people not in the labour force rose to 1.107 million in the quarter from 1.095 million in the September period.

BNZ's Steel said the quarterly movements in the underlying data were within the error of margin.

The data follows Tuesday's quarterly employment survey, which showed 0.6 per cent growth in full-time equivalent (FTE) positions to 1.34 million, and a 0.5 per cent rise in total filled jobs to 1.7 million.

Last month, the Westpac-McDermott Miller Employment Confidence Index showed the number of people pessimistic about the labour market outnumbered optimists for the first time since June 2009, though business confidence surveys show firms are more upbeat about their hiring intentions in the coming year.

Retail trade and accommodation staff numbers rose to 335,500 in the quarter from 324,900 the prior period, while manufacturing jobs increased to 256,000 from 244,700.

Statistics New Zealand introduced a new series for youth aged 15 to 24 not in employment, education or training (NEET), which rose 0.7 percentage points to 13.1 per cent in the December quarter. As a comparison, the NEET rate was between 10.2 per cent and 12 per cent from March 2004 and December 2008, peaking at 15.4 per cent in December 2009.

Youth joblessness improved for 20- to 24-year-olds, with the unemployment rate falling to 11.9 per cent from 12.2 per cent, though the 15- to 19-year-old jobless rate rose to 24.2 per cent from 23.4 per cent.


The Taranaki region showed a marked improvement in employment, with the jobless rate falling to 3.8 per cent, the lowest in the country, form 5.2 per cent in the September quarter. Wellington unemployment rose to 7.2per cent in the December period from 6 per cent. The Bay of Plenty and Northland regions had the worst rate at 8.3 per cent.

New Zealand's unemployment rate was 12th lowest among developed economies, behind Israel's 5.6 per cent but ahead of the Czech Republic's 6.7 per cent.