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Back-to-school hiring, coupled with the end of the United Parcel Service strike, pushed the unemployment rate in Erie and Niagara counties down to 5.1 percent in September, the state Labor Department said Tuesday.

The unemployment rate, which was down from 5.2 percent in August, was the fourth lowest September rate in the last 23 years as the region continues to enjoy unusually low jobless levels.

"It's the reopening of schools, pure and simple," said George P. Smyntek, the department's regional economist in Buffalo. "There's not a lot of activity."

Yet the September employment report also shows that the region's overall economy continues to be far from robust, with the local job base holding steady during the last year, while the total number of jobs in the state was growing by 1.3 percent.

Even so, the region's unemployment rate remained well below the state's jobless rate of 6.1 percent, although it was higher than the national rate of 4.7 percent on a seasonally unadjusted basis.

"The nice part is unemployment is relatively low," Smyntek said.

While the number of jobs was flat at 542,900 compared with a year ago, the jobless rate declined, in large part, because the region added 5,700 jobs from August as schools reopened and UPS employees went back to work.

The reopening of schools caused the number of government jobs to soar by 3,300 last month to 85,900. It also accounted for a 600-job gain in the number of positions in the service sector, which provides more jobs than any other part of the local economy at 158,900.

The end of the UPS strike caused the number of transportation and public utility jobs to rise by 1,500 to 25,700.

But the rest of the local job base was fairly stable last month. The number of manufacturing jobs rose by 200 to 89,500, while the construction sector was unchanged at 23,500 positions. Area trade firms added 100 jobs to 130,300, while the number of finance, insurance and real estate jobs was unchanged at 29,100.

Erie County's jobless rate fell to 4.9 percent last month from 5 percent in August, but was up from 4.4 percent a year ago. In Niagara County, the unemployment rate slid to 5.9 percent from 6.1 percent in August, but was up from 5.3 percent the year before.

In Buffalo, the unemployment rate was stable at 8.3 percent in September, but was up from 8 percent a year ago. In Niagara Falls, the jobless rate slipped to 9.2 percent from 9.5 percent in August, but was up from 8.6 percent the year before.

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