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Job growth in Buffalo Niagara picks up steam in February

The slow but steady pace of job growth in the Buffalo Niagara region picked up a little during February, with the area adding jobs at a pace of slightly less than 1 percent, the state Labor Department said Thursday.

The region added 4,800 jobs over the last year – a 0.9 percent annual increase that was roughly on par with the pace of growth since the beginning of fall, interrupted only by a small decline in employment during December that economists said could have been related to the unusually cold winter.

John Slenker, the Labor Department’s regional economist in Buffalo, said the bitter winter weather may have depressed activity in the construction and manufacturing sectors, which were two of the weakest parts of the local job market last month.

But Slenker also said he was encouraged by the strength that the rest of the local job market is showing, especially considering that January and February typically are the weakest months for hiring.

“This is real,” he said.

The Labor Department also revised its January jobs data upward, increasing the annualized growth rate to 0.8 percent, from the 0.7 percent increase it initially reported earlier this month. The revised figures are based on the more detailed filing data on claims for unemployment insurance that the Labor Department receives from companies.

Hiring was strong last month at temporary employment agencies, as well as at stores and educational services firms, all of which grew by more than 2 percent in the last year.

Those gains were offset by weakness in the construction, information and federal government sectors, which each lost jobs at a pace that topped 2.7 percent from February 2013 to February 2014, the Labor Department said.

“I don’t see a lot of weakness here,” Slenker said. “In the two-county area, we’ve shown remarkable strength.”

The region’s factories continued to cut jobs, reducing manufacturing employment at a 0.8 percent annual pace, but Gary D. Keith, regional economist at M&T Bank, said the harsh winter could have contributed to that decline. Keith said he thinks the long decline in employment at the region’s factories is on its way to ending.

“I think there is a sense that this is starting to turn,” he said. “Turning the corner is the first step to a recovery, and I think we’re on that course.”

The region’s private sector has stepped up its hiring, adding jobs at a 1.1 percent annual pace. Hiring was even stronger at private-sector service firms, which have expanded employment at a 1.5 percent annual rate.

The local job growth, while improved, still lags behind the pace of hiring both nationally and across the state. The nation added jobs at a 1.5 percent annual pace during February, while the state increased employment at a 1.3 percent annual rate, without adjusting for seasonal factors.

Yet the job growth in Buffalo Niagara was three times faster during February than it was across the 52 counties of upstate New York, where job growth ran at a 0.5 percent rate.

The 0.9 percent job growth in Buffalo Niagara ranked as fifth-fastest in the state’s 14 major metropolitan areas, trailing New York City, Nassau and Suffolk counties, Poughkeepsie and Kingston.

“Fully three-quarters of the statewide job gain came in New York City,” said E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany.

Nationally, the number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits fell by 10,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 311,000, the lowest since late November and a hopeful sign hiring could pick up.

The Labor Department says the four-week average of applications, a less volatile measure, fell by 9,500, to 317,750. That is the fourth straight drop and the lowest level in six months. It brings applications in line with pre-recession levels.