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The unemployment rate in the Buffalo Niagara region continued its steady move downward, dipping to 6.5 percent in December – the lowest level for any month in the last five years.

The drop in the jobless rate last month continued a declining unemployment trend that began during March and continued throughout the rest of last year, the state Labor Department reported Tuesday.

It also comes at a time when the region has been adding jobs at an annual growth rate of about 1 percent a year, which is above average by local standards but still slower than the pace of employment growth nationally.

The December jobless rate was slightly less than the downwardly revised November unemployment rate of 6.6 percent and was significantly lower than the 8.4 percent rate from December 2012. It was the lowest December jobless rate since it stood at 5.5 percent in December 2007, before the Great Recession began taking a toll on the local job market.

“Everything is going in the right direction. Slow and steady growth is positive, and it’s sustainable,” said John Slenker, the Labor Department’s regional economist in Buffalo.

Slenker said local workers are beginning to show greater confidence in the job market, believing that there is a growing opportunity to either find work or leave one job and find a new one.

“People, I think, are gaining a little bit of confidence in the local economy,” Slenker said. “There’s not that pervasive pessimism that used to be here.”

Even so, jobless levels remain well above the relatively low levels of unemployment that the region enjoyed during most of the 1990s and the 2000s, when rates hovered between 4 percent and 6 percent.

The local jobless rate last month matched the U.S. unemployment rate, without adjusting for seasonal factors, and was slightly lower than the statewide rate of 6.6 percent, even though unemployment across upstate New York was slightly lower, at 6.4 percent.

The Labor Department, in a separate report last week, said local employers added 5,100 jobs over the past 12 months. That growth has allowed the region to recover all of the jobs it lost during the Great Recession, which started in 2007 – an accomplishment that the area failed to achieve following the previous recession in 2001.

Hiring during December was even stronger among the region’s private-sector businesses, which added jobs at a more robust 1.2 percent annual pace. But those gains were largely offset by job cuts at cash-strapped government agencies and smaller workforces in the leisure and hospitality field.

The local job market still has a long way to go to get back to where it was before the 2000 recession. The 37,000 people looking for work last month is more than a third higher than it was in December 2006. The 6.5 percent jobless rate ranks as the sixth-highest for any December in the last 20 years.

But there has been improvement from the darkest days of the Great Recession. The quicker hiring pace has helped slash the number of people who were looking for work but couldn’t find a job by 22 percent during the past year and reduce the ranks of the unemployed to its lowest level for any month since December 2008, before the recession began hammering the local job market.

At the same time, the number of people who were employed in the Buffalo Niagara region grew by 1.3 percent during the past year and was at its highest level for any December since 2009. But the region still has 21,000 fewer people who are employed than it did in December 2007.

Among the state’s 14 major metro areas, Buffalo Niagara’s unemployment rate was tied for the seventh-lowest, with Ithaca, Nassau and Suffolk counties, the Putnam-Rockland-Westchester region, Albany, Poughkeepsie and Rochester having lower jobless rates.

email: drobinson@buffnews.com