The unemployment rate in the Buffalo Niagara region held steady at 9.2 percent last month as the local job market showed signs that it is beginning to stabilize, the state Labor Department reported Thursday.
While jobless levels remain at their highest point since the mid-1980s, the pace of job losses has continued to slow over the last year. Since February 2009, the region has lost 6,300 jobs, a drop of 1.2 percent.
That decline is the slowest year-over-year drop since the job market began its steep downward spiral in December 2008 and is less than half the rate of decline the region experienced for most of last year.
The decline has slowed, in part, because the downturn in the job market already was in full swing a year ago, making comparisons with February 2009 more favorable.
Yet the local job market also showed some signs of greater strength last month, adding 2,300 jobs since January. That was nearly six times stronger than the increase in jobs from January to February last year and matches the average uptick in jobs during those months over the last 10 years.
Still, the 525,800 jobs in the Buffalo Niagara region were the fewest for any February since 1994, the Labor Department reported.
"We're still losing jobs, and we're in the middle of a very bad recession, but we're starting to see a little bit of life," said John Slenker, the Labor Department's regional economist in Buffalo.
While the region has dodged the more severe job losses that have hit the country as a whole during the recession, the area's labor market still has steadily weakened over the last 16 years. Unlike the rest of the country, Buffalo Niagara didn't experience robust job growth during the headier days that followed each of the last two recessions.
The manufacturing sector continued to be the biggest drag on the local job market, shedding 5,100 jobs over the last year, or nearly 10 percent of the region's factory jobs.
Over the last nine years, two of every five local factory jobs have disappeared, carving a huge hole in the region's economy that has not been filled by growth in other sectors.
While manufacturing jobs account for 80 percent of the region's total job losses over the last year, the local service sector has begun to stabilize, losing just 900 jobs over the last year, a drop of 0.2 percent.
"The service industries actually have performed pretty well," Slenker said.
A flurry of hiring at stores helped boost the number of retail jobs by more than 3 percent over the last year, while hiring also increased in management and administrative positions, along with food service, health care and social assistance jobs.
A spurt of temporary hiring by the federal government for the ongoing census also should give a short-term boost to the job market this month and next month, Slenker said.
The Buffalo Niagara region's 1.2 percent decline in jobs is the sixth-lowest among the state's 13 major metro areas, trailing Glens Falls, Ithaca, Kingston and the counties of Nassau and Suffolk, and Utica.
The job losses locally were much less severe than the 2 percent statewide and the 2.5 percent nationally. The local jobless rate also is less than the 10.4 percent seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate nationally and slightly below the statewide rate of 9.3 percent.
Job losses varied widely in rural portions of Western New York, with Genesee County faring the best, on a decline of 0.5 percent, and Cattaraugus County losing 0.9 percent of its jobs over the last year.
Allegany County lost jobs at a 1.1 percent annual pace, while Chautauqua County lost 2.7 percent of its jobs, and the decline jumped to 3.8 percent in Wyoming County.
The jobless rate in Erie County held steady at 8.9 percent last month, while unemployment levels rose to 10.5 percent in Niagara County, up from a revised 10.2 percent in January.
Here are the unemployment rates for other Western New York counties for last month, January and February 2009:
*Allegany -- 9.8 percent, 10.1 percent and 9.5 percent.
*Cattaraugus -- 9.9, 9.8 and 9.3.
*Chautauqua -- 9.9, 10 and 8.8.
*Genesee -- 9.1, 9.1 and 9.1.
*Orleans -- 11, 11.2 and 10.6.
*Wyoming -- 11.5, 11.1 and 11.