The Buffalo Niagara region’s slow but steady job growth stretched into March.

The region added 3,500 new jobs during the 12-month period that ended last month – a 0.6 percent annual growth rate – as the local job market continued to slowly gain strength, the state Labor Department reported Thursday.

Hiring at local stores, contractors, financial institutions and health care firms fueled much of the job growth last month. Those gains offset a drop in jobs in manufacturing, temporary help and professional and business services.

The latest data paints a picture of a job market that is slowly improving but is growing much more slowly than the rest of the country and even parts of downstate New York. Firms nationally are adding jobs at a pace that is more than three times faster than the growth rate here, while the state is gaining jobs more than twice as fast as the Buffalo Niagara region.

“We’re in this steady growth pattern,” said John Slenker, the Labor Department’s regional economist in Buffalo. “For the most part, we keep going forward.”

In a negative twist, the Labor Department revised February’s job numbers sharply downward, saying the region added 1,700 fewer jobs than it initially reported three weeks ago and reducing the annualized pace of job growth during February to 0.6 percent from the 0.9 percent rate in the original data.

According to the revised data, the pace of hiring in Buffalo Niagara slowed steadily throughout the fall, bottoming out with a job loss in December and then slowly increasing during the first three months of this year.

Better than 1 of every 3 new jobs created last month came from the financial services sector, where employment now is at a 10-year high and is within 3 percent of its prerecession peak.

Roughly 1 in 6 new jobs added in March came from the construction sector, which has been bolstered by major building projects such as the SolarCity solar panel factory and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Construction jobs were at their highest level for any March in the last 15 years.

Retail jobs grew at a 3.4 percent annual rate. Hiring rose by 2.5 percent at local health care and social-assistance firms.

Those gains offset renewed weakness in local manufacturing, which lost 1,100 jobs over the past year and has been locked in a slow, steady decline since July. Factory jobs were at a three-year low during March.

The sector that includes temporary help also was weak, falling at a 10.1 percent annual pace in March.

Hiring by the private sector, which excludes government jobs, was moderate, growing by 2,600 positions, or 0.6 percent, in the last year to hit another modern record in March. Private-sector employment locally is at its highest point for any March in at least the last 26 years.

“As far as the private sector goes, we’ve had one down month in six years,” Slenker said. “That adds up over time.”

E.J. McMahon, executive director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, called the region’s 0.6 percent job growth rate mediocre, but noted the gain of 2,600 private-sector jobs was the most of any upstate metro area.

The region’s slow but steady growth in its job market now has continued almost unabated for 42 straight months, with the exception of a December job loss whose accuracy has been questioned by local economists.

Job growth was strongest downstate, while most upstate metropolitan areas lagged far behind the statewide and national growth rates. The U.S. has added jobs at a 2 percent annual pace over the past year, while the state has grown at a 1.6 percent annual rate.

Among the state’s 14 major metro areas, Buffalo Niagara’s job growth ranked in a four-way tie for seventh with Binghamton, Ithaca and Utica. Only Albany, Elmira, Glens Falls, Rochester and Syracuse had slower job growth in March.

The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits unexpectedly declined last week to match a more than 42-year low. Jobless claims dropped by 13,000 to 253,000 in the week ended April 9.

© 2016 The Buffalo News

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