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Region sees job growth on census hiring ; Experts note stability even without fed workers

The Buffalo Niagara region job market grew for the first time in 17 months during May, thanks to a spurt of temporary hiring by the U.S. Census Bureau.

But even without the census jobs, the local job market showed signs that it is beginning to stabilize after a prolonged period of painful job losses. Excluding all the federal government job gains over the last year, the region lost only 100 jobs from May 2009 to May 2010 -- the local job market's strongest showing since November 2008.

"The census is the story this month," said John Slenker, the state Labor Department's regional economist in Buffalo. "But even if the census hadn't occurred, we'd still be flat. That's encouraging."

The gain in jobs pushed the local unemployment rate down to 7.6 percent, the lowest since December 2008 and better than the 7.8 percent jobless rate in April, the Labor Department reported Thursday. In all, the Buffalo Niagara region added 1,600 jobs from May 2009 to May 2010, breaking a streak of year-over-year job losses that began in December 2008, when the recession hit the local economy with a vengeance.

Yet the job growth could be fleeting. The hiring of temporary census workers led to 1,700 additional federal government jobs, accounting for all the overall job growth in the region over the last year. Without that growth in federal employment, the region would have lost 100 jobs over the past year.

Even so, the employment figures show a job market that is stabilizing and starting to show some signs of strengthening after a long period of painful job losses that have left the region with fewer jobs than it has had during any May since 1996.

"This is beginning to look like we're bottoming out," Slenker said. "These job numbers have left me cautiously optimistic about the rest of the year."

Despite the improvement during May, though, local jobless levels remain close to their highest levels since the mid-1980s. And the job growth came against employment levels in May 2009 that were especially weak. While the pace of factory job losses has slowed, all of the private-sector job gains during May came from local service firms, led by seasonal hiring in the leisure and hospitality sector and increased staffing at retailers. That helped offset the loss of 3,400 factory jobs over the last year.

The employment report also showed that April was a much weaker month for the local job market than initially reported. Revised figures, based on more complete reports that local companies file with the state, show that the region's job losses from April 2009 to April 2010 were more than twice as severe as first reported, with 2,900 jobs vanishing over the 12-month period, compared with the initial report that pegged the loss at 1,200.

Among upstate metro areas, the Buffalo Niagara region's job market is faring rather well. The region's 0.3 percent annual job growth rate trailed only Ithaca, Utica-Rome and Glens Falls in a state where six of the 13 biggest metro areas lost jobs during the month. The job growth here also was better than the 0.4 percent job loss nationally during May.

Job growth remained sluggish in rural portions of Western New York, where Allegany County fared the best by keeping its job count unchanged over the last year. Genesee County lost jobs at a 0.8 percent annual rate, while job losses ran at a 0.9 percent pace in Chautauqua County and reached 1.5 percent in Wyoming County and 1.8 percent in Cattaraugus County.

The unemployment rate in Erie County slipped to 7.5 percent last month from 7.6 percent in April and 8 percent in May 2009. In Niagara County, the jobless rate fell to 8.3 percent from 9 percent in April and 9.2 percent a year ago.

The Buffalo Niagara region's jobless rate of 7.6 percent is well below the seasonally unadjusted national unemployment rate of 9.3 percent and the statewide jobless rate of 8.1 percent.

The following are the unemployment rates for other Western New York counties for May, April and May 2009:

*Allegany -- 8.6 percent, 8.7 percent and 8.5 percent.

*Cattaraugus -- 8.2, 8.5 and 8.4.

*Chautauqua -- 8, 8.5 and 8.1.

*Genesee -- 6.6, 7.1 and 7.

*Orleans -- 8.4, 9 and 8.9.

*Wyoming -- 8.2, 8.7 and 8.3.