EMPLOYMENT levels increased for the first time since 2007 in the last quarter of 2011 when adjusted for seasonality, new figures from the Central Statistics office show.
The change was accounted for by women returning to the workforce with men still maing up the majority of the unemployed.
An additional 10,000 people were employed in the last quarter of 2011.
But there were 302,000 people out of work at the end of last year, 3,000 higher than in 2010, according to the figures.
The average unemployment figure for the whole of 2011 was 304,200, up 12,500 or 4.3pc compared with 2010.
The number of people at work in the economy fell by 15,400 or 0.8pc to stand at 1.8m in the final quarter of last year.
According to the CSO, the average employment level during 2011 was 38,100 lower than in 2010.
Economists welcomed the jobless drop in the fourth quarter.
Dermot O’Leary, chief economist at Goodbody Stockbrokers, welcomed the positive trend at the end of the year.
“Employment increased by 0.6pc quarter-o-quarter on a seasonally-adjusted basis in the final three months of last year,” he said.
“This is the first sequential increase in employment in exactly four years.
“The official measure of unemployment remained steady at 14.6pc in the fourth quarter and is still at its cyclical high, highlighting the scale of the challenge ahead.”
He added that half the sectors examined by the CSO saw a net increase in jobs in the last quarter while the other half recorded declines.