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Region hits new high for February jobs

The Buffalo Niagara region’s job market turned in a strong performance last month, with the highest February employment total on record.

The state Labor Department said the region added jobs at a rate of 1.6 percent over the previous year, to a total of 550,700. Private sector job growth alone was up 2 percent, and the increases were broad based, said John Slenker, regional economist with the Labor Department.

“What’s striking to me was the growth was across all sectors,” he said.

The region’s previous record for February – based on data going back to 1990 – of 548,200 was set in 2000, before two economic downturns that impeded job growth in the ensuing decade. The region has been building toward a record: this was the fifth consecutive year that the February job count was higher than the previous year’s.

The region added 8,900 jobs over February 2014, the Labor Department said. Jobs in the trade, transportation and utilities sector increased 1.9 percent, while financial activities jobs rose 3.4 percent.

Government employment was down 0.2 percent. One of the few other notable categories to drop from a year ago was manufacturing, which declined 2.1 percent, to 50,900. Slenker said that sector tends to fluctuate.

Gary Keith, an economist at M&T Bank, said the 2 percent year-over-year increase in private-sector job growth was head-turning for the Buffalo Niagara region: “By our standards, it was a blowout number.”

But Keith said the robust increase should be viewed in context. “I’m thinking that it may be an easy comparison to a year ago, when we had so much of the weather-related issues running around,” Keith said. “I wouldn’t say the underlying growth rate of the region has hit that kind of a number.” The region has been averaging about 1 percent a year growth in private-sector jobs. The year-over-year results for March may provide more perspective, Keith said.

“Any time you see a 2 percent in private-sector jobs in Buffalo, I think you’ve got to step back and say we’re really performing at a better rate than we’ve seen for a long, long time,” he said.

Keith said the weather this February was tough locally, too, and he was surprised those conditions didn’t have more of an impact on the job numbers. “We sailed right through.” The construction sector, for instance, added 1,500 jobs over the past year. “We can see where that’s going into the ground around town.”

While the region’s employment has been growing, the size of its work force has been shrinking.

“It’s an important trend to follow, from the standpoint of, if we’re seeing older workers leave the work force, we’ve got to have younger individuals ready to step up and step into those opportunities,” Keith said. The region needs to ensure it has a pool of qualified applicants to prevent growth from being constrained in the future, he said.

Slenker, of the Labor Department, said the labor market tends to adjust to those kinds of needs, and he noted the region is benefiting from an influx of immigrants to add to the work force. But he sees a larger point about workers being ready for jobs that come along.

“The big message has always been to get your training, get your education so you can participate in the labor force,” Slenker said.

New York state’s job count increased 1.7 percent in February from a year ago, and also reached a record high total for the month.