The New York State Department of Labor has released preliminary unemployment rates for January 2019, and Columbia County is tied for the second-lowest rate in the state at 3.7 percent.
Greene County’s figures track a bit higher at 4.7 percent, which is the 24th lowest rate in the state — and is the lowest January rate for the county in nearly 30 years.
The figures are based on residents living in the county who have jobs, either in their county of residence or elsewhere.
There are 62 counties in New York state. The unemployment rate statewide was 4.6 percent.
All reported rates are preliminary and subject to change, according to the New York State Department of Labor website. Data released by the state reflect jobs that are not seasonally adjusted, meaning the figures can be impacted by seasonal influences such as holiday and summer hires.
Columbia County is tied with Rockland County for the second lowest unemployment rate in the state, behind only Nassau County at 3.6 percent.
“We are pleased to see that Columbia County remains amongst the lowest unemployment numbers in the state,” said F. Michael Tucker, president of the Columbia Economic Development Corporation.
Compared to January 2018, this year’s January rate was down a full percentage point, from 4.7 last year to 3.7 in 2018.
Prior to the release of the January 2019 rates, the county had the lowest unemployment rate statewide for 14 months running, Tucker said.
The low unemployment figures in Columbia County over a span of more than a year have also led to some challenges — with so few available workers looking for jobs, employers are having trouble hiring.
“The unemployment numbers are still among the lowest ebb in the state, and we are focused on the fact that you need to match skill sets with available jobs,” Tucker said. “And to the extent that there is a gap, we need programs to fill that gap so employers can find the workers they need and people looking for work can find jobs.”
To address the need for skilled workers that employers are seeking, Tucker said the Columbia Economic Development Corporation is working with Columbia-Greene Community College, Questar III BOCES and the Workforce New York Center, based at the college, to provide job training programs for prospective employees looking to hire.
Matt Murell, chairman of the Columbia County Board of Supervisors, said he was pleased with the rate and the county’s record over the past year.
“It is a positive sign for Columbia County,” Murell said. “The last time we were the lowest in the state — the numbers have been pretty steady. I think it is positive that so much of our workforce is working. We also have a shrinking workforce because there are less people living in the county and a large portion of those who do live here are working.”
Murell agreed that finding workers to fill open jobs has become a challenge for local employers.
“If you drive around there are a lot of help-wanted signs, especially in restaurants,” he said. “It is difficult to find steady employees. The potential workforce is lower.”
In Greene County, the January rate was the lowest it has been in 29 years in comparison to previous January rates.
“This is the lowest number for January since 1990, which is as far back as the numbers go,” said Greene County Director of Economic Development and Planning Karl Heck. “Employment was up and unemployment was down, and the labor force is up, so that is good.”
The number of people employed in Greene County rose by 400, with 300 previously unemployed residents finding work and an additional 100 new workers added to the workforce in January of this year, Heck said.
Greene County Administrator Shaun Groden agreed the news is welcome.
“Information like this is always good news,” Groden said. “The caveat is that the economy is good, so it is not unusual to have those kinds of numbers when generally business is good and people are spending money. Our economy is always the first to fall in a recession or there is a national problem, and we are the last to rebound. It is just the nature of our economy — we are heavily based on tourism, which is a discretionary spending item in the family budget. The national economy still running strong, it is good news now, but economies go in cycles so there will eventually be a downturn.”
While the county’s economy is still heavily dependent on tourism — like ski resorts and golf courses — steps have been taken to bring a wider range of employers to the county, Groden said.
“We are more diversified right now, so that is good. That is a crucial element — you can’t be too dependent on one sector,” Groden said. We have been focused on expanding the job base — we won’t get the giant chip manufacturer like Malta did, we don’t have the infrastructure, but we have small mom-and-pop businesses coming to the region.”
That is a good position to be in, he said.
“Even the national economy is not the chip manufacturers, it is the small mom-and-pop businesses,” Groden said. “This is overall good news for everyone.”
Progress has been made at the county level to draw new business to the area, he said, such as expanding broadband access and adding additional routes to the county’s public bus system.