It’s not time to declare victory, but by some standard business definitions, the Buffalo-Niagara region’s new jobless rate puts the area into the realm of full employment. A couple of asterisks accompany that development, but this is undeniably good news.
The state Labor Department announced on Tuesday that unemployment had dropped to 4.8 percent in this region. The Federal Reserve considers a base unemployment rate of 5 percent to 5.2 percent to be full employment, which excludes people who are not actively looking for work.
That rate is down from a recession high of 9.4 percent and it marks the first time the region’s rate has been this low since November 2008. Some of that is because some percentage of the unemployed give up and stop looking for work while others, at or near retirement age, decide it’s time to leave the workforce.
But what makes this month’s report especially potent is that it reflects not simply a decline in unemployment, but strong growth in jobs. The pace of hiring is more than double last year’s rate, propulsive enough that the number of people who were actively looking for work but couldn’t find it fell by almost 10 percent.
The region’s job market has now grown for 37 straight months – the longest such streak since 1990.
In the end, about 10,000 more people were employed in Buffalo-Niagara last month than there were in October 2014. It’s a report that goes beyond hopeful and is another signal that Buffalo and Western New York are emerging from decades of wandering in the economic wilderness.
The other asterisk is that, like most parts of the country, service industry jobs have grown while higher-paying manufacturing jobs have withered. So full employment today may be less of an economic driver than in past decades.
But even that could change over the next few years, as the RiverBend project comes on line and supply industries expand and develop to feed what will be the largest solar panel manufacturing plant in the Western Hemisphere. With the region at full employment, the work of filling the jobs in those plants and others will likely require hiring from outside the region.
If that’s a problem, it’s the kind that any community would be happy to have, especially if it reunites families that were separated as sons and daughters left to find opportunity elsewhere.
It’s been a long time coming for Buffalo, whose turnaround was brokered by the state and federal governments and built upon by doers like the Pegulas and area developers who understand their opportunity to make money by nourishing the area’s revival. And all of it feeds Western New York’s job growth.
Other factors are important to keep firmly in mind: This remains one of the country’s poorest cities and, without attention and effort, Buffalo’s resurgence could bypass whole communities. That will only further the divide between haves and have-nots, a condition that carries its own risks.
The answers to that problem lie in outreach, training, investment in infrastructure and, over the long term, improved education. That will not only ensure that opportunity expands throughout Buffalo, but that the city becomes an increasingly attractive place for families with school-age children.
There is work to do, but the figures from the Labor Department show that Buffalo is moving in the right direction. This is very good news and it seems certain only to get better.