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Job growth in WNY gains speed, credibility

For the last 15 years or so, John Slenker has been parking in the same downtown lot.

For the longest time, not much changed. When Slenker, a state Labor Department economist, looked at the cars, he’d sometimes see license plates from Ontario, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

But now, that’s changing. It’s not unusual, he said, to see cars from distant places, like California, Texas and Colorado.

Slenker thinks those far-off license plates are a sign of our strengthening job market, where an uptick in hiring over the past 15 months – and an even more accelerated pace this year – is creating the kind of employment opportunities at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and elsewhere that can lure workers from other parts of the country, let alone provide solid work for people who already live here.

For decades, it was the lack of good jobs that caused our young people to move away. Now, our population is stabilizing, and there are high-profile projects, from the Medical Campus to SolarCity’s 1,500-employee solar panel factory, that are giving a jolt to the local job market, first because of all the construction associated with those projects, and eventually with the hiring that will take place as those businesses ramp up.

We’re already seeing the impact. The local unemployment rate dropped to 5.3 percent during June – its lowest level for that month since 2007.

Companies in the Buffalo Niagara region added an estimated 12,700 jobs during the past year. You have to go all the way back to July 1999 before you’ll find another month where the job growth over the previous 12 months was better than June’s 2.3 percent increase.

“The problem that we’ve had with population growth is that we haven’t been able to attract people from outside the region,” Slenker said.

That’s changing. SolarCity’s first 100 to 200 hires are expected to be primarily imports, brought in because of their expertise and experience in the solar and semiconductor industries. There will be software engineers brought in to work at IBM’s new center in the KeyCenter. There will be researchers and physicians recruited to the Medical Campus.

That’s what job growth will do.

For most of this century, the Buffalo Niagara job market has just muddled along. After the 2001 recession ended, job creation here was never strong enough to restore all of the jobs that we lost before the next recession hit in 2007.

By last summer, we had recovered all the jobs we lost during the Great Recession, but it took until March before we clawed our way back to the point where we finally were able to climb out of the employment hole that was dug during the 2001 downturn. When a recovery takes 14 years, you know your job market is sputtering.

“We’ve had some success over time, but it’s always been offset by something,” said Gary Keith, the regional economist at M&T Bank.

But the sputtering has stopped this year. Job growth during the first half of this year has averaged nearly 1.7 percent – more than twice as fast as the pace of growth last year.

And the pace has been accelerating. Between June’s 2.3 percent job growth and the 2 percent annualized increase during May, it was the first time in more than a quarter century that the Buffalo Niagara region’s job growth had topped 2 percent in consecutive months. June was the first time in 47 months that the Buffalo Niagara region added jobs faster than the nation.

Hiring by the sector firms, which exclude government jobs, has been even stronger, with private sector jobs hitting a record high during June after growing by at a 2.8 percent annual pace, the second fastest among the state’s 15 biggest metro areas, behind only New York City.

As hiring has picked up and the pool of unemployed workers competing for open jobs has shrunk – it’s down 39 percent over the past three years – companies are finally feeling some pressure to increase pay. Average weekly wages in Erie and Niagara counties last year rose by roughly 4.9 percent.

“In the past, Buffalo had a recession and a recovery, a recession and a recovery,” Slenker said. “Now, I would say we’re past the recovery and we’re in a growth mode.”

To be sure, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Despite the pickup in hiring, there still were nearly 30,000 workers in the Buffalo Niagara region last month who were actively looking for a job but couldn’t find one. That’s 12 percent more than we had before the recession hit eight years ago.

And while the number of workers with jobs hit a six-year high during June, it still was 6 percent below the pre-recession peak in June 2006.

The aging of the baby boomers, who are beginning to head off into retirement, accounts for some of that, Slenker said. But it also shows that there’s still some slack in the local job market, which is another way of saying there’s still room for more growth.

“We’re not at growth levels that are bubbles,” Slenker said. “When you look at the projects that are lined up, we’re in a sustainable growth cycle.”

After decades of decline, slow and steady growth sounds like a good thing.