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Despite plenty of 'help wanted' signs, local unemployment remains above pre-pandemic levels

Despite plenty of 'help wanted' signs, local unemployment remains above pre-pandemic levels

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Hiring, Help wanted, employment, jobs

PCB Piezotronics on Walden Avenue in Depew is looking for employees.

Unemployment keeps dropping across the Buffalo Niagara region, falling to 4.7% during October, according to the State Labor Department.

But the falling unemployment rate masks some serious issues that are hampering the Buffalo Niagara economy.

Jobless levels remain significantly above pre-pandemic levels, and the unemployment rate was unchanged from September to October.

The region's workforce, which normally would grow at a time when jobs are plentiful and companies are hiring, is instead shrinking.

At a time when help wanted signs are a common sight, the number of people who are actively looking for a job but can't find one is down from last year's elevated levels, but still is well above pre-pandemic norms.

The result is a job market where workers feel more confident than they have in years about quitting their jobs, potentially with the belief that they can find one that they like better or pays more.

"It's getting tougher for these employers, absolutely," said Timothy Glass, the Labor Department's regional economist in Buffalo.

The tight job market, coupled with the steady increase in the minimum wage in recent years, has narrowed the gap between the lowest-paying jobs in the market and entry level positions in manufacturing and construction that traditionally paid moderately higher wages.

Fast food jobs now command a $15 an hour minimum wage, and the minimum for all workers will rise to $13.20 at the end of the year. That squeezes other businesses, that could offer a comfortably higher wage of around $16 to $18 when the minimum wage was lower, but now the gap between that starting wage and the minimum is narrower.

That increases the competition for workers at the lower end of the wage scale.

"With all these businesses competing for such a small pool of workers that they have to either increase wages or increase benefits," Glass said.

"You're competing with almost everybody now, which wasn't traditionally true," Glass said.

"Now you have construction and manufacturing competing with retail. They're competing with the leisure, where they never had to compete with them before for these lower paying jobs."

The rising wages at the lower end of the scale have allowed some workers who previously needed two or three jobs to make ends meet to get by with just one, said Julie Anna Golebiewski, a Canisius College economist.

That makes it more difficult to fill part-time positions at a time when early retirements, Covid fears and child care issues also are keeping workers out of the job market.

As a result, the pool of available workers across the Buffalo Niagara region is smaller than it's been in decades. Even before the pandemic, the supply of workers was shrinking as baby boomers headed into retirement. And the pandemic hastened those departures.

The local labor force is 10% smaller than it was in 2008 – a loss of 58,000 workers. And in the last two years alone, nearly 10,000 people have left the labor force.

That has kept the pace of the region's jobs recovery in check. The region hasn't added jobs for four straight months, and there still are about 14,000 fewer people holding jobs than there were two years ago. That's a drop of almost 3%.

Meanwhile, there still are more than 4,000 people who are unemployed than before the pandemic – a gap that economists blame on a range of factors, from a skills mismatch to workers becoming more picky on the types of jobs – and the wages – they'll accept.

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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