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The Buffalo Niagara region’s work- force keeps shrinking, and that’s helping to push the local unemployment rate down to its lowest levels since 2008.

The unemployment rate in the Buffalo Niagara region fell to 6 percent during June as number of workers who were actively looking for a job but couldn’t find one fell to a six-year low, the state Labor Department said Tuesday.

The jobless rate was the lowest for any June since 2008, when the Great Recession was just starting to batter the local job market, and it continued a trend toward sharply lower unemployment levels that began in the spring. In June 2012, the local jobless rate stood at 8.4 percent, although unemployment levels still are higher than they were from the mid-1990s until the onset of the recession, when they hovered in the 4 percent to low 5 percent range.

The drop in the local unemployment rate over the past year wasn’t caused by a wave of hiring. The number of workers who were employed during June actually fell by 500 people, or about 0.1 percent, from June 2013 to June 2014.

Instead, the big drop in the unemployment rate was caused entirely by a steep decline in the number of workers who were considered to be unemployed, which plunged by 22 percent, or nearly 10,000 people, to its lowest level since June 2008. Overall, the local labor force shrunk by almost 2 percent from a year ago and is smaller than it has been at any point in at least 24 years, according to the Labor Department data.

Local economists said the growing number of baby boomers who are deciding to retire now that they’ve reached their 60s is playing a major supporting role in the steady decline in the local labor pool.

“I think the biggest driver on this is the aging of the workforce,” said John Slenker, the Labor Department’s regional economist in Buffalo. “Our labor force has declined rather rapidly.”

In 2010, 10.1 percent of the people in the Buffalo Niagara region were in their 60s – putting them at or near prime retirement age. By next year, 11.6 percent of the local population will be in their 60s, according to population projections from Cornell University’s Program on Applied Demographics.

Local economists estimated that anywhere from half to two-thirds of the decline in the labor pool could be due to the region’s aging population.

The trend is not just happening in the Buffalo Niagara region. Unemployment rates also fell sharply in Albany, Syracuse and Rochester during June, even though each of those cities also had fewer people employed last month than they did in June 2013.

Beyond the demographic shift, economists also said the unemployment rate also is being pushed downward because there still are a large number of discouraged workers who have stopped looking for a job and, therefore, are not counted in the unemployment statistics. “We’ve lost a lot of manufacturing jobs,” Slenker said. “Some of those people may need new training to find another job.”

Exactly how many local workers are discouraged is hard to quantify, but economists note that while the region’s job market has been growing slowly, but steadily, for more than three years, the pace of that hiring has lagged well below the national average.

The Labor Department reported last week that the region has added 6,300 jobs over the past year, although the pace of hiring is about 40 percent slower locally than it is across the country as a whole.

Scott Stenclik, the president and CEO of local employment firm Superior Group said the local job market is strengthening, with especially strong demand for skilled workers in areas ranging from engineering and information technology to financial services and manufacturing.

“I view the job market in the Buffalo Niagara area as being quite strong,” Stenclik said. “People have more choices, and that’s a sign of a healthy labor market.”

The decline in unemployment was mirrored across all of upstate New York, where the jobless rate dropped to 6.5 percent from 7.8 percent a year ago. Across the country, the unemployment rate has fallen to 6.3 percent from 7.8 percent in June 2013, without adjusting for seasonal factors. The local unemployment rate was slightly higher than the 5.9 percent jobless rate across the 52 counties of upstate New York.

The drop in the jobless rate during June continued a trend of declining unemployment that began during February 2013 and has continued uninterrupted ever since, according to Labor Department statistics.

Among the state’s 14 major metro areas, Buffalo Niagara’s unemployment rate was the ninth-lowest. Only Binghamton, Elmira, Syracuse, Utica and New York City had higher jobless rates.

email: drobinson@buffnews.com