In the old days – as recently as three or four years ago – Ryan Schroen probably would be thinking about where his job hunt would take him.
On track to graduate this spring from Canisius College with a master’s degree in business administration, Schroen is just the type of young person who would pack up and leave the Buffalo Niagara region to take a good-paying job in Charlotte, Chicago or Columbus that simply couldn’t be found in the Buffalo Niagara region.
But not today.
Schroen actually is hopeful that he’ll be able to find that good-paying job in marketing or logistics in the resurgent Buffalo Niagara region.
“I think I have a very good chance of getting a job,” Schroen said. “I think, right now, my best opportunities are right here because I went to Canisius and people know it.”
Schroen has reason to be optimistic, too. The Buffalo Niagara job market has taken a sharp turn for the better over the past year, with job growth during the first 11 months of 2015 running at its strongest pace in 25 years. The local unemployment rate dipped below 5 percent in both October and November – the first time that’s happened since late 2007.
That’s not to say that the Buffalo Niagara job market is booming. Our unemployment rate is roughly on par with the rest of the country, and our job growth actually is a little slower than the nationwide gains in hiring. But the gap between what’s happening here and what’s going on in the rest of the country has narrowed, and that’s a big improvement.
“We’ve had a very long, nice extended recovery,” said John Slenker, the state Labor Department’s regional economist in Buffalo. “We can keep that pace up.”
Dan Shvimer, a Grand Island credit analyst, also noticed the change.
“A few years ago, when I was looking, I never heard back from anyone,” said Shvimer, who’s been looking for a new job for the past couple of months.
“This time, I’ve had a ton of interviews. There are a lot of positions out there,” he said.
“They’re real jobs,” Shvimer said. “It’s a good time to look.”
You could see the change at the annual Jobsapalooza job fair earlier this month. A record 94 companies, including manufacturers like PCB Piezotronics, St. Gobain and Precious Plate, attended the event, hoping to fill positions ranging from summer internships to full-time jobs.
A few days before the job fair, more than 20 companies were on a waiting list, hoping for the chance to set up a table at the event. Organizers accommodated them by pushing some of the companies into the hallway outside the main event room.
“It’s a good sign when you have manufacturers at an event like this,” said Mike Skowronski, the Niagara University official who helped organize the event. “It looks like employment opportunities are good, but people still need to be aggressive.”
Over the next four years, the labor department estimates that about 17,000 manufacturing jobs will come open, many of them paying decent starting salaries, running from around $44,000 for tool and die makers and industrial engineer technicians to $38,000 for machinists. Some openings will come from expected growth in advanced manufacturing, but most are due to retirements.
Steve Davis, the president of Buffalo contract manufacturer Tapecon, said the region’s current challenge is to convince young workers – as well as their parents and school guidance counselors – that manufacturing can be a viable career for those with the right skills.
The trouble, Davis said, is that after decades of decline, many valued manufacturing skills are in short supply. “The region’s current work force does not have the skills to meet these demands,” Davis said.
The skills gap even affects employers like Buffalo insurer LoVullo Associates. “Finding people with insurance backgrounds is going to be a struggle for us,” said Jeff Sainsbury, the company’s human resources manager.
So LoVullo seeks out recent college graduates, starts them in entry level positions, and trains them in different facets of the insurance industry as they advance in their careers.
“We’re experiencing some significant growth,” Sainsbury said. “Overall, the job market is improving, both for employers and candidates.”
But that doesn’t mean finding a job is easy. Employers still are cautious about hiring in an economy that’s growing slowly. And they’re willing to wait for the right candidate to come along.
“We go through a very thorough interview process,” said Cheryl Grasso, a KeyBank recruiter who was at Jobsapalooza looking for candidates to fill full-time positions at the bank’s Amherst contact center.
Even so, there’s been steady progress. The number of unemployed people in the region dropped by 11 percent over the past year and is down 41 percent since 2009.
With job prospects improving, people who had given up on finding a job have started looking again. The local labor force grew by a little less than 2 percent over the past year.
That means there’s still plenty of competition for open positions – something Matthew Smith of North Tonawanda knows all too well. He graduated from Niagara in May and is looking for a marketing position. But he hasn’t found one yet.
“It’s a little rough right now,” he said. “A lot of companies require a lot of experience, and it’s hard to get.”
But Smith hasn’t lost hope. So he keeps looking.
And after getting married in June, he isn’t looking to move, either.
“I know that timing is important in a lot of this,” he said.