ALBANY — With the unemployment rate relatively low and statistics showing shrinkage in the number of workers participating in the labor force in several regions of upstate New York, experts say it's a good time to be in the market for a new job.

"In the past we had workers looking for jobs, and now we have jobs looking for workers," said Anthony Hayden, who monitors trends for the state Department of Labor in the North Country region.

Western New York, the Mohawk Valley, the Southern Tier and Central New York were all identified in report released Sept. 4 by state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli as regions where the total number of employed workers declined from 2011 to 2016. This trend took place as the number of workers participating in the economy increased in all other parts of the state.

For those regions that have experienced a drop in the number of workers with jobs, employers, in some instances, have found it challenging to fill available positions.

James Malatras, president of the Rockefeller Institute for Government, an Albany think tank, said regions that offer public transportation networks and boast strong broadband coverage and ample housing opportunities tend to draw people in the job market. When such services are lacking, he said, "it makes it harder to grow."

While the areas that are lagging in job growth and worker participation in the labor force have some things in common by virtue of being part of upstate region, there is "no one-size-fits-all" strategy for addressing their economic needs because they are also very different from one another, he suggested.

"It's not a homogenous state," said Malatras, noting the most sparsely settled county, Hamilton, in the Adirondacks, has only about 5,000 residents, the approximate population of just one block in certain parts of New York City.

The highest employment growth in the state, according to DiNapoli's report, was led by job gains in New York City and its suburbs.

Robert Harlem, president of the Oneonta Block Co., a building products supply firm, said the business climate across parts of upstate has been harmed by government programs that have lessened the incentive for people to get jobs.

"People are being paid not to work and those costs are borne by the business sector," Harlem said. "You see a lot of 'help wanted' signs, but then you have people saying: 'I'm not going to take that job; I don't want to work.' A lot of your employers have said; 'The heck with it. I'm not going to stay in New York.'"

The comptroller's report also found that job growth in New York has been lagging the rest of the nation, even as the state has reached its highest number of employed people since the Great Recession.

Kevin Jack, a state Labor Department analyst based in Albany, said the number of baby boomers retiring or nearing retirement across the state has played a role in the work force participation rate.

"A lot of people have been staying on the sidelines and it's not related to a lack of job prospects," Jack said.

He said there is new focus on trying to fill "middle-skill jobs," or jobs that require some training but not a four-year college education, such as auto mechanic, to cultivate workers to fill spots being vacated by retiring baby boomers.

"In some ways that's the sweet spot right now in the economy," Jack said. "There are a lot of opportunities out there."

The fact that statistics suggest that economic vitality in New York City is robust while the upstate region lags is a reversal of fortunes from the 1970s, when state government helped to bail out the nation's largest city while it was on the brink of bankruptcy.

State government now needs to be part of the solution in addressing the business climate statewide, said Assembly GOP Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua.

“We need to lower taxes and fees, cut regulations, and build a workforce for the next generation." Kolb said. "The current economic environment isn't affordable or sustainable. We are putting upstate communities and businesses at a competitive disadvantage.”

The Western New York region, defined by the Department of Labor as Niagara, Erie, Chautaugua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties, saw its number of private sector jobs decline by 1,500 in the year ending in July, while the number of public sector jobs grew there by about 1,000, according to state statistics.

The job growth was helped by gains in educational and health services, transportation and utilities, while declines in the leisure and hospitality industries and the financial sectors declined.

In the North Country, according to Hayden, the manufacturing sector has gained 400 jobs in recent months after hitting a low point earlier in the year. Concern in the region remains for jobs at the Alcoa plant in Massena.

Alcoa had considered closing its smelter there but in November 2015 agreed to extend the life of the plant for 3.5 years, sparing 600 jobs, after agreeing to accept $70 million in discounted power from the state as well as financial help for its operating and capital costs.

Most of the growth in the North Country, Hayden said, has been paced by the health care and education sectors.

The region is also looking for its economic prospects to be bolstered by the expansion of the Norsk Titanium plant in Plattsburgh, he said. "The potential is pretty big there," he said.

Of all the labor markets, the one that experienced the greatest decline in its local workforce was the Southern Tier, the comptroller's report found. The North Country and the Mohawk Valley also shed significant numbers of workers from 2011 to 2016.

And while the national labor force grew by more than three percent over those five years, New York posted a gain of less than one percent.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at

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