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Job seekers around here can celebrate this Labor Day

This could be the happiest Labor Day in a quarter century for workers in the Buffalo Niagara region.

And it's all because of the power of simply being average.

Average, in the sense, that the Buffalo Niagara job market now is behaving in a way that's fairly similar to the employment market across the country.

For a region that has spent most of the last 25 years lagging behind the rest of the country, simply keeping up with the Joneses is a huge improvement.

Through July, our job growth has been running at a 1.7 percent annual pace. If that keeps up, 2015 will be the best year for job growth in the Buffalo Niagara region since 1989.

And the growth has been accelerating as the year has gone on. During May, June and July, our job growth topped 2 percent – something that has happened during only three other times during the previous 300 months, dating all the way back to 1990.

Even better, our job growth was actually a little faster than the country's expansion during June and July.

“It means so much,” said Scott R. Stenclik, the president and CEO of the Superior Group, an Amherst staffing agency.

“It means a lot to everyone who's looking for a job,” he said. “It means a lot to every expatriate who's left.”

Local economists rightly point out that all the improvement has merely brought us back to being average. And it could be that this is just a passing period of normalcy. But when your job market has been as sick as our's has been for the past quarter century, just getting to the point where you're not sick anymore is a big deal.

Consider this: From July 1990 to July 2013, a period of 23 years, the Buffalo Niagara job market went absolutely nowhere. In fact, we actually lost 400 jobs along the way.

While we were stagnating, the rest of the country was growing, adding 26.6 million new jobs. By the time July 2013 came around, the U.S. had 24 percent more jobs than it did in July 1990.

Is it any wonder why our young people moved away? There simply were more opportunities to find good jobs elsewhere.

But that's starting to change, and in a pretty big way. During July, the pace of job growth in the Buffalo Niagara region was the strongest among all of the major upstate metro areas and, statewide, was second only to New York City's 2.7 percent gain.

“It's a different era and there's a different feel about the area, and that breeds confidence,” Stenclik said. “And confidence breeds more job opportunities.”

William Dudley, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, visited Buffalo last month and noticed some big changes since he was last here, less than two years earlier.

“The growth in Buffalo was striking,” Dudley said during a media briefing two weeks later.

“The numbers show a dramatic uptick in construction employment, and the visual evidence of development was widespread,” he said. “I was especially impressed with the downtown and waterfront areas, as well as the new SolarCity factory.”

There's more evidence, too. Our unemployment rate dropped to a seven-year low of 5.8 percent in July, down from 8.9 percent in July 2012.

But there's still plenty of room for improvement: Our jobless rate regularly was below 5 percent before the recession hit in 2008.

Even our pay, which has long been lower than the national average, is starting to rise more in step with the rest of the country. The average annual pay in Erie County has grown faster than the nation for two straight years – something that had happened only twice during the previous eight years.

But it's still a case where our stronger wage growth recently has merely moved closer to what's normal nationally.

Average annual pay in Erie County grew by a total of 4.7 percent over the past two years, which is a little better than the 4.2 percent increase nationally.

While average pay here still is 10 percent below the national average, the stronger wage gains in 2013 and 2014 are a big reversal from the previous eight years, where local pay grew by a total of just 21 percent, noticeably less than the 25 percent increase nationwide.

Gary Keith, M&T Bank's regional economist, expects “solid near-term growth” for the local economy, powered by the boom in construction spending and a broad-based demand for new hires in fields ranging from health care and education to financial and business services and leisure and hospitality firms.

Stenclik, whose firm has offices in 27 U.S. cities, is optimistic about the rebound that's happening in the local job market. He's seeing more job openings in Buffalo than in many other cities where Superior Group operates.

“What's going on in Buffalo is stronger than in many other cities,” he said.

When was the last time you could say that about the Buffalo Niagara job market?

And that is reason enough to celebrate on Labor Day.