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Buffalo Niagara unemployment rate drops to 8-year low of 5.2% in August

Rachel Eklund, with a new MBA degree on her résumé, is on the hunt for a marketing job.

And she’s upbeat about landing one in the rebounding Buffalo Niagara job market.

“I feel like there’s a lot out there, but you have to be open-minded,” the Lakewood native said Tuesday as she walked through a Cheektowaga job fair. “I don’t feel discouraged because everyone I’m talking with knows of jobs that are opening up.”

The numbers lend credence to Eklund’s optimism. The unemployment rate in the Buffalo Niagara region fell to 5.2 percent during August – its lowest level since 2007 – as a surge in hiring this summer helped reduce the number of people who couldn’t find jobs to an eight-year low, the state Labor Department reported Tuesday.

The jobless rate is down by nearly a full percentage point from the 6.1 percent unemployment rate of August 2014. It is the lowest unemployment rate for any August since 2007, and the first time that unemployment has dipped that low during any month since November 2007.

“We’re getting there. The rates are dropping down to pre-recession levels,” said John Slenker, the Labor Department’s regional economist in Buffalo. “It was a good month.”

The local unemployment rate, which stood at 8.4 percent in August 2012 and reached as high as 9.3 percent in early 2012, has been dropping steadily for nearly three years. However, unemployment levels still are above their pre-recession lows, when the region routinely had jobless rates between 4 and 5 percent. That means the local job market is tightening, but still has ample room for improvement.

Despite the faster pace of hiring and the smaller pool of unemployed workers, the improved job market has not translated into significantly higher wages.

After slightly outpacing the nation during 2013 and 2014, wage growth in the Buffalo Niagara cooled to just 1.3 percent during the first quarter of this year, less than inflation and below the nationwide increase in wages of 2.1 percent, according to new data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

‘Job seeker’s market’

“It’s becoming more of a job seeker’s market, but you still have to have the skills employers want,” Slenker said. “The more skills you have, the better. The skilled workers are the first ones to get picked up.”

That’s especially true for workers with trade skills, such as welders, electricians and plumbers.

“Plumbing is a demand profession, much like computers are,” said Bob Warham, a field trainer for Roto-Rooter Services Co. in West Seneca.

Warham said he didn’t set out to have a career in the plumbing business after graduating with a business degree from SUNY Buffalo State, but he ended up following that path when the opportunity opened up.

Now, with a wave of older tradesmen set to retire in the coming years, Warham said the skilled trades could be an attractive option, even for college graduates.

“People have to open their eyes and look to the opportunities out there,” he said. “It’s hard to convince someone that their college education is going to direct them into a trade.”

Max Schulte, a SUNY Geneseo graduate who returned home to Kenmore two months ago after working in education and marketing jobs in China and New Zealand for five years, said he was encouraged by the flurry of construction projects and the activity around the Buffalo waterfront.

“Before I came home, I thought I’d come home for a couple of months and move on,” he said.

Now, he thinks he has a shot at finding a good job here. “I’ll find something,” he said.

The number of people who were employed in Buffalo Niagara during June grew by nearly 2 percent in the last year – the highest level for any August since 2010. About 10,000 more people were employed in Buffalo Niagara last month than in August 2014.

With the pace of hiring so far this year running at more than double the 2014 pace, the number of people who were actively looking for work but couldn’t find it tumbled by 13 percent in the last year to its lowest level for any August since 2007, just before the recession began battering the local job market.

Patrick J. Engasser, Aflac’s district sales coordinator in Amherst, said he thinks the improvement in the local job market has convinced workers that they can afford to be a little more selective and not jump at the first offer that comes along.

“I think people are banking on a good job,” he said. “I think people are becoming more selective. They’re waiting for a higher wage.”

The local unemployment rate now has been below 6 percent for six straight months – the first time that has happened since mid-2008 – and in 10 of the last 12 months, according to Labor Department data.

The region is in the midst of its strongest hiring surge in more than a quarter-century, fueled, in part, by the region’s building boom, which has added 3,200 construction jobs in the last year – nearly a third of the area’s total job growth.

Much of the hiring stems from seasonal roadwork and big construction projects at SolarCity, HarborCenter and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Job growth locally has averaged 1.8 percent during the first eight months of this year, more than double the 0.7 percent increase in jobs the region experienced during all of 2014.

If that pace continues through the rest of the year, 2015 would be the strongest year for job growth in Buffalo Niagara since 1989.

Samantha Spengler, who manages a West Seneca hair salon, is hoping that the accelerated pace of hiring might help her find a different job with more regular hours.

Spengler, who has a bachelor’s degree in history and is part of the way toward earning her master’s in history, would like to find a teaching job, but realizes that those jobs are hard to find in the region.

Keeping young people

“I find there are a lot of jobs, but they’re a lot of the same thing. There’s debt collection. There’s sales,” she said. “If I moved out of state, I know I could find a job, but I don’t want to take my son away from his family here.”

For more than three decades, the region watched as a generation of young people moved away to seek better job opportunities elsewhere. Eklund, the recent Canisius College MBA graduate, would rather not join the flight.

“I feel like there are so many opportunities that weren’t here five years ago,” she said. “Now, there’s so much growth here, I don’t want to go away because I feel like I might miss out.”