Employers face challenges filling 766 open positions in county

Steuben County’s May unemployment rate was 5.2 percent, the state Department of Labor reported Tuesday.

It is the third consecutively monthly decrease in county unemployment, which stood at 6.7 percent as recently as February.

While the county’s jobless mark shows steady improvement, Steuben continues to be bedeviled by a shrinking work force, with new labor department data indicating that employers can’t find enough workers to fill the available openings.

First to unemployment. The 5.2 percent rate puts Steuben County tied for 48th place in the state with three other counties: Chemung, Fulton and Orleans. There are 62 counties in the state.

A year ago, in May 2016 when the unemployment rate was 5.4 percent locally, Steuben County was ranked 53rd of 62 counties.

The labor department said there were 40,100 people employed in Steuben County in May, little changed from April. However, private sector employment saw a boost, climbing by 2 percent or some 600 jobs over the month and finishing at 30,200 positions. That 30,200 number represented a gain of 200 jobs over a 12-month period,

Observers can better appreciate where Steuben County’s unemployment picture is now by reviewing where it was during the Great Recession and during the first years of the economic recovery. The following list shows the improvement since the Great Recession began in 2009.

May 2017: 5.2% May 2016: 5.3% May 2015: 6.5% May 2014: 6.6% May 2013: 8.1% May 2012: 9.1% May 2011: 8.6% May 2010: 9.1% May 2009: 9.6%

Going back a little further, since about 2005, Steuben County’’s best May unemployment rates have hovered right around 5 percent, with just a small leeway either above or below that mark. The 5 percent range may be the county’s “unemployment wall,” noted Christian Harris, a Southern Tier labor analyst with the state labor department.

More jobs and increased economic development may depend on halting the slide in the county workforce, Harris suggested.

The shrinking labor force — it was 42,300 last month, 43,100 last year, 44,100 in May of 2015, and an incredible 48,000 in May of 2010 — is “still of concern,” Harris said.

The smaller pool of available workers is not a problem inherent to Steuben County, to the Southern Tier or to Western New York State. It’s a national trend, driven in large part by members of the Baby Boom Generation retiring in large numbers, labor analysts say.

There is no doubt, however, that the shrinking labor base is a challenge local employers are learning, with varied success, to deal with. Employers have several ways to attract workers from a smaller labor force, Harris said, including paying more, relaxing qualification requirements for entry level positions, offering flexible hours, and accommodating cultural changes brought about by a more diverse labor pool.

Employers may need to do more. According to Harris, there are 766 jobs currently waiting to be filled in Steuben County. That number is generated by the Department of Labor along with its workforce partners, Harris said. The jobs openings “cross the spectrum” of industries. Many are high-paying positions.

“These are not just lower-end jobs,” Harris said. “That’s a large amount of openings.”

By comparison, seven years ago in June of 2010, there were 560 job openings in Steuben County.

Other notable jobless numbers from May:

The Southern Tier Region's unemployment rate was 4.7 percent in May, following at 5 percent mark in April.

Allegany County’s unemployment rate was 6 percent, down from 6.6 percent in April.

Livingston County had a May jobless rate of 4.5 percent, the same mark as 12 months ago. The rate was 4.8 percent in April.

The best unemployment rate in the state belongs to Columbia County, where it is 3.4 percent. Hamilton County’s 6.6 percent was the worst mark in the state last month.

The Southern Tier unemployment rate was 4.7 percent in May, following a 5 percent mark in April.