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Report says local job market turned ice cold in December, but did it really?

The Buffalo Niagara job market turned ice cold in December, shedding more jobs than it has in any month in nearly eight years, according to state Labor Department data released Thursday.

The December job data showed that the Buffalo Niagara region lost 4,600 jobs during December – a 0.8 percent decline over the past 12 months that is the steepest year-over-year decline for any month since February 2010, when the local job market still was being battered by the Great Recession.

But even the Labor Department's own economist in Buffalo doubts that the local job market is in as rough shape as the data indicates. He thinks revisions to the data in the coming months will show that the local job market is significantly stronger than the December statistics show.

"I am absolutely positive that the fundamentals of the Western New York economy are very positive," said John Slenker, the Labor Department's regional economist in Buffalo. "I think our fall was much stronger than the numbers are saying."

Instead, Slenker said, the data likely is being skewed by statistical and sampling flaws that are overstating some seasonal fluctuations to magnify weakness in the local financial services and leisure and hospitality sectors – a trend that has depressed the region's employment numbers throughout 2017, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary.

"There's a lot more variance in the month-to-month data because of the small sample size," Slenker said. Beyond that, December tends to be particularly volatile because it is a time when stores are ramping up holiday hiring, local colleges are scaling back as the fall semester ends and the construction season winds down.

In three of the last four years, the sample that is used to calculate the December job totals initially has reported that the region lost jobs during the month, only to have later revisions, based on more detailed data from unemployment insurance claims, show that employment actually increased steadily during the month.

Slenker said he is skeptical of the reported December job loss because local employers continue to hold job fairs to fill open positions, while he sees "help wanted" signs at many businesses. Neither are signs of a shrinking job market but are an indication that employers are finding it harder to find qualified workers.

Revised job numbers will be released in March.

Driving the December job numbers down was a reported loss of 1,800 jobs in the financial services sector, with the steepest decline in the region’s real estate sector at a time when the Buffalo Niagara housing market is stronger than it has been in at least a decade.

Despite a wave of openings at local bars, restaurants and hotels, the data shows a decline of 2,900 leisure and hospitality jobs.

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