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What is one to make of the latest job and unemployment numbers for the Rochester area?
Viewed from one perspective, they are decidedly bright. The metro unemployment rate in December was 6.1 percent, down nearly 2 points compared with a year ago. The number of unemployed also dropped—by 24 percent—to 32,800. And the number of people with jobs grew by 5,400 to 484,300.
But seen from another angle, the numbers have a darker cast. The metro labor force at the end of 2013 totaled 515,800, down from 520,400 a year earlier.
In other words, a partial explanation for the sharp decrease in the number of unemployed and the jobless rate is the shrinkage of the labor force.
Where did these 4,600 people go? Some of them belong to the long-term unemployed; they simply gave up looking for work. Those no longer trying to find a job vanish from the unemployment statistics, and the rate edges downward.
That is not the only possible explanation, however. Some move away. Others retire—a factor that can be significant in a region with an aging population. Another reason: returning to school for better skills.
The question cannot be answered with any certainty at the local level, but national data suggest the brighter picture might be more accurate. Gluskin Sheff chief economist David Rosenberg told the New York Times, for instance, that the number of people in the 25-to-54 age group who are not in the workforce and say they are “discouraged” dropped 18.5 percent last year.
This is not to downplay Rochester’s labor market challenges. As M&T Bank economist Gary Keith notes elsewhere in this week’s edition, net new jobs added by the region’s private employers in 2013 were the fewest in three years. But manufacturing job losses were to blame for much of that, and the outlook began to improve in the second half of the year.
So what’s the bottom line? In our view, it’s this: Rochester continues to be challenged by the impact of the Great Recession and the long-term decline of once-dominant employers like Eastman Kodak Co. And at the same time it continues to make progress.
Greater clarity and assurance about the local economy would be nice, but don’t expect that anytime soon.
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