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Low unemployment rates, increasing job counts and a burgeoning call center ignited a sleepy labor market in Niagara County in 1998, prompting a change in the workplace and countering the effects of an anemic loonie.

"By normal standards, we have had a very good year," said George Smyntek, regional economist for the state Department of Labor. "You're looking at the lowest jobless rates ever in 22 years."

In November 1998, for example, the county's jobless rate was down to 5.6 percent, the third-lowest November in record, according to Labor Department statistics.

"That's running back some 20 years, and it looks like the average for 1998 will be right around there," Smyntek said.

"There's a change taking place in the marketplace," Smyntek continued. "We've been going through a transition period."

The evolution Smyntek speaks of targets computers, and the skills required by the workers who operate them.

"The demand on the worker in the workplace is dramatic," Smyntek said. "An occupation today is not the same as it was five years ago. Lots of things took place last year that have made an impact."

In Niagara County, for example, it was the emergence of TeleTech Holdings Inc., an international call center in downtown Niagara Falls. TeleTech's workers answer customer service questions via telephone and the Internet for a wide variety of clients, many of them Fortune 500 companies.

"We are currently over 800 employees, but more importantly, internally, 200 individuals have received a promotion in 1998," said Sean Erickson, TeleTech divisional vice president. "TeleTech is strongly committed to offering people a career, not just a job."

According to data provided by the company, 82 percent of TeleTech employees live in Niagara County, with 65 percent living in Niagara Falls.

The call center -- located on Rainbow Boulevard in the former Falls Street Station -- opened in December 1997, and is in service 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Last year, the company announced the expansion of business operations, accompanied by the addition of 180 jobs.

"Many of our initial employees came from Fleet Bank," Erickson noted. "People came from the medical field, retail and other area call centers. TeleTech has also worked with the Niagara County Department of Social Services to train and hire potential employees."

The demand for occupations as opposed to industries, according to economist Smyntek, may often times be difficult to accommodate.

"We're talking about replacement need, with the skills required making a big difference," Smyntek said. "There's a demand for systems analysts, teachers, computer programmers and accountants."

Wages continue to grow in both Niagara and Erie counties, especially in the manufacturing sector, where factory wages averaged $729.73 weekly through August 1998. By contrast, the average weekly salary in 1997 was $716.78; in 1996, $697.46.

"This happens to be a record high for that industry," Smyntek said. "You have that generator, manufacturing, being extremely important to Niagara County."

Manufacturing jobs account for 39 percent of the total wages in Niagara County, according to Labor Department data.

At the Small Business Development Center at Niagara County Community College, director Richard F. Gorko helps those interested in starting small businesses get their ideas off the ground.

In 1998, Gorko estimated that $12.95 million in personal investments have been funneled into the local economy. In addition, the development center served 600 new clients last year, 60 of them actually starting businesses.

"In Niagara County, we had 13 percent of the 600 in manufacturing, 30 percent in the retail industry, and 42 percent were interested in the service sector," Gorko explained.

"We do see fewer people coming to us who have been displaced or fired," Gorko said. "Rather than moving out of the area, the outlook has been people looking to start their own business."

For instance, Chris Shiah operates the Wedding Chapel at the Clarion Hotel on Third Street. Shiah, a lifelong resident of Niagara Falls, hopes this spring to launch a spinoff business and open a bed-and-breakfast called the Chapel Inn on Main Street.

"There was a need for it," Shiah said. "A lot of couples prefer B & Bs. It's fun. We will explore it and explode in the spring."

Accompanying the good news of low jobless rates, record wages and small business development is the plummeting value of the Canadian dollar, which translates into decreased numbers of border-crossing shoppers.

Last year, for example, same-day border crossings numbered 1.24 million. By contrast, in 1992, more than 2 million Canadians -- or 2.28 million drivers -- crossed the Peace Bridge.

"It stands to reason that the dollar certainly has a lot to do with it," said Russ Wilson, program services officer for Customs Border Services in Fort Erie, Ont.

The Canadian dollar is worth about 62 cents in American money.

"The very high volumes have tapered off dramatically, with the predominant reason for the decrease being the exchange rate," Wilson said.