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A job market 'at, or near, full employment'

The Buffalo Niagara job market finished 2018 on a high note, capping what initial reports indicate was a strong year for hiring.

The region added 7,500 jobs over the past year — a 1.3 percent annualized growth rate — as hiring jumped at local construction companies and in education and health services, according to new data from the state Labor Department.

The December data shows that hiring was robust by Buffalo Niagara standards last year. That’s the fastest growth rate since 1999 and nearly twice as fast as the 0.7 percent job growth during 2017.

One word of caution: The monthly job numbers are based on more timely, but increasingly volatile, data collected from a monthly survey of 18,000 businesses statewide and economists have warned that the latest statistics could be overstating the strength of the hiring wave. December data, in recent years, have been especially volatile and have regularly been subject to significant revisions when more extensive information, based on unemployment claims filings, is factored into the calculation.

Even so, the 1.3 percent job growth rate is a sign of a robust labor market, illustrated by the "help wanted" signs that are a common sight outside local businesses.

"We're probably at, or near, full employment," said Timothy Glass, the Labor Department's regional economist in Buffalo. "It's tough for employers to find job seekers."

Hiring by private-sector businesses — which excludes government jobs — was stronger than the Buffalo Niagara region’s overall job growth rate. Private-sector hiring grew by an annualized rate of 1.5 percent last year, the fastest since an identical increase in 2012 and tied for the biggest increase in 19 years.

Much of the hiring during December came from a more than 13 percent surge in hiring at local construction firms, which Glass warned could be overstating the level of hiring going on in a still-solid segment of the economy. Education and health services expanded by nearly 5 percent, while retail jobs were up almost 2 percent as holiday shopping hit full gear. That offset a nearly 3 percent job loss at local bars, restaurants and hotels and a small decline in employment in professional and business services.

Job growth across the Buffalo Niagara region last month matched the statewide average, but it still tied for the sixth-strongest with Nassau-Suffolk counties among the state’s 15 major metro areas. But hiring in the Buffalo Niagara region lags further behind the 1.8 percent growth across the country, continuing a long trend of sub-par job growth during times of economic expansion.

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