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Fewer seek work as region adds jobs ; Unemployment rate declines to 8.2%

Western New York had more private-sector jobs last month than a year earlier, and the region's unemployment rate fell largely because fewer people looked for work, the state Labor Department said Thursday.

The jobless rate in the Buffalo Niagara region -- Erie and Niagara counties -- fell to 8.2 percent last month, a 10th of a percentage point from a year earlier. In figures not seasonally adjusted, it remains well below the national rate of 9.1 percent.

The area posted a net gain of 2,000 nonfarm jobs to 543,200, representing the third-straight month of year-over-year growth in such jobs.

The private sector, where total jobs increased by 2,000 over the course of the year to 446,200, accounted for all of the region's job growth, while government jobs were flat at 97,000. That's the seventh straight month of year-over-year private-sector job growth.

"I'm very cautious about calling trends, but even I have to admit that one. That's the kind of trend we want to see," said John Slenker, regional economist for the state Labor Department. "This nice slow growth is much better than what we were seeing a year ago. We were still losing jobs at a rather hectic pace."

Employed workers in the two-county metropolitan area dropped by 300 to 530,500 in the past year. The region's work force -- 428,400 in Erie County and 102,100 in Niagara County -- was down 1.1 percent last month from a total of 536,200 in November.

The number of workers reflects residents of Erie and Niagara counties who are employed, while the number of jobs reflects jobs located in the two counties, regardless of where the workers live.

But the total number of jobless fell 1.1 percent from a year earlier to 47,200, while it was up 2.2 percent from 46,200 in November. Hence the year-over-year drop in the unemployment rate, which, nonetheless, rose from 7.9 percent in November.

"The economy is improving. We are adding jobs. But we need to add more," Slenker said. "It's not going to happen overnight. We've got to work our way through this."

Still, he also noted that consumers aren't talking in dire terms anymore, and "you're also hearing people talk about the recession in the past."

Private-sector service jobs, which rose by 3,200 to 380,200, posted the biggest increase over the past year. In particular, professional, scientific and technical services jobs increased by 1,300, or 5 percent, while employment at food service and drinking places rose by 2,700 or 6.7 percent. By contrast, wholesale trade lost 1,100 jobs or 5.1 percent, while education and health services lost 1,000 jobs or 1.1 percent.

Within government employment, federal jobs increased by 300 to 10,100, while state jobs fell by the same number to 22,200. Local government jobs were flat at 64,700.

"Is it massive growth? No. Are we still in a hole compared to where we were? Yes," Slenker said, noting that the number of unemployed people remains 20,000 higher than in December 2006, before the recession. "But things are going in the right direction, and we just have to continue that."

Statewide and not seasonally adjusted, unemployment fell to 8 percent from 8.8 percent -- 8 percent in the 10-county downstate region and 8.1 percent upstate in the other 52 counties. Glens Falls and New York City had the highest metro rate, at 8.6 percent, while Ithaca had the lowest, at 5.5 percent, flat from a year ago.

"You're going to see this kind of a mixed picture right now," Slenker said. "If we're not at the end of the recession in the labor market, we're close to it."

On a seasonally adjusted basis, the state's jobless rate fell by a 10th of a percentage point to 8.2 percent last month from 8.3 percent in November and remained well below the national pace of 9.4 percent, despite a loss of 22,600 nonfarm and private-sector jobs statewide.

"Job growth in New York State has been inconsistent month to month during this economic recovery," said Norman A. Steele, deputy director of the Labor Department's Division of Research and Statistics.

In Western New York outside Erie and Niagara counties, Allegany County added 100 jobs for a total of 17,900. Cattaraugus was flat at 34,100, while Chautauqua lost 300 jobs, to 54,700. Genesee gained 200, to 23,100, and Wyoming added another 200 for 13,100.

By county, the unemployment rates for last month, last November and December 2009 were:

*Allegany: 9.3, 8.7, 8.7.

*Cattaraugus: 8.9, 8.6, 8.9.

*Chautauqua: 8.3, 8, 8.7.

*Erie: 8, 7.8, 8.2.

*Genesee: 7.8, 7.4, 8.1.

*Niagara: 9, 8.5, 9.1.

*Orleans: 10.1, 9.1, 9.4.

*Wyoming: 9.6, 8.7, 10.

The rates for two major cities were:

*Buffalo: 9.7, 10, 9.8.

*Niagara Falls: 11, 10.9, 11.2.