The unemployment rate moving up or down a few percentage points doesn't matter much to John Heck.

The 47-year-old self-employed laborer from Dallastown has been struggling to find work since a recession halted the economy.

"They say it's over now, but it doesn't feel over to me," he said.

The Great Recession began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, but the fallout remains.

Sub-prime loans, a housing market bust, credit crisis and rising costs combined with other factors to create a systemic pattern of job loss and foreclosure across the country, including in York County.

The local unemployment rate climbed from 4.1 percent in January 2008 to 9 percent at the height of the recession.

Since early 2010, the York-Hanover unemployment rate has slowly decreased but hasn't been less than the 7.6 percent logged in April 2009.

"I think a lot of us want to know when are things really going to get better?" Heck said.

The magic number in unemployment statistics is 5 percent, according to William Sholly, an analyst for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry.

"The general consensus is 5 percent means people who are looking for work can find it. That's what's considered normal," he said.

The York-Hanover area was well above normal before the recession when the rate hovered between 3 and 4 percent.

On Tuesday, the state Department of Labor & Industry announced the rate was 7.6 percent in March - the same rate recorded in York County a year earlier.

It was three-tenths of a percentage point lower than the 7.9 percent unemployment rate in February, but it may have been because fewer people looked for work.

"We're seeing drops in both employment and unemployment. Some people stopped looking for work," Sholly said.

Why they stopped looking for work during the last two months is unclear. It could be due to retirement or a family deciding to get by one income, he said.

Heck used to make enough money to support his family on one income.

"Those days are long gone. Even if things get better again I think we'll have more situations with two people bringing in the money. There's a fear things will get bad again," he said.

The number of discouraged workers picked up in March, but it wasn't a big enough piece of the pie to alarm Sholly.

"Statistics are volatile month to month. It's a little premature to say things are getting bad," he said.

With the York-Hanover unemployment virtually unchanged for the last 25 months, it's not accurate to say things are getting worse. But it is accurate to say the local economy is stagnant, local leaders said.

"It continues to be an extremely stubborn economy. We can't get any sustained growth or momentum," said Mike Smeltzer, executive director of the Manufacturers' Association of South Central Pennsylvania.

He said a few factors are contributing to why his members aren't hiring: a skills gap, a lack of confidence in government leadership and a growing sector of underemployed people who are not motivated to go look for better jobs.

"Eventually something has to give. When was the last time (President Barack Obama) mentioned jobs? Job creation has disappeared from the discussion," Smeltzer said.

But the blame doesn't fall squarely on the White House, he said.

"As a result of the economic downturn in 2008, many companies are still looking for reasons not to do things. What has to happen for hiring to pick up is the trillion dollar question," Smeltzer said.

Companies cite consequences of the Affordable Care Act, competition from China and federal policies as obstacles to hiring, he said.

"What's it going to take? I think it's just going to take some time," Smeltzer said.

Darrell Auterson agreed.

The CEO of the York County Economic Alliance said a big challenge is uncertainty.

"There's still uncertainty with regard to the strength of the economy and there's still uncertainty with regard to government leadership. That's not something we will overcome overnight," Auterson said.

But the diversity in the York economy - including manufacturing, health care, retail and more-has helped it stabilize.

"Our economy has always been one that is steady as she goes. It hasn't had the huge wide swings other areas have suffered," he said.

The recovery in York County hasn't been as robust or fast as many hoped for, but it hasn't struggled through a series of highs and lows, Auterson said.

"We've had steady growth in population and the overall workforce," he said.

The workforce has grown from 227,300 in January 2008 to 229,000 in March, according to statistics from the state Department of Labor & Industry.

But the number of employed hasn't kept up with that growth. In January 2008, 218,100 people were employed. In March, 211,500 people were employed.

"As the economy gets its legs in 2014 and 2015, I think we'll see those trends move upward," Auterson said. "We just have to ride out the storm. It's been a rough storm with a long hangover."

But the local health care industry seems to have been immune, Sholly said.

In March, the health care and social assistance industry added 200 jobs, reaching a record high of 24,200.

It is now the largest industry in York County, and WellSpan Health is the largest employer.

"I wouldn't classify it as recession proof. I'd say it's one of the most recession resilient," said Bob Batory, senior Vice President and chief human resources officer.

The aging population has continued a demand for services, but a number of people aren't accessing health care options because they can't afford co-pay fees and deductibles, he said.

But the needs are still there, and WellSpan has to meet them, Batory said.

"Even in recession, people don't stop having accidents or serious chronic conditions," he said.

With more than 9,100 employees, the health system's hiring is ongoing, Batory said.

"We add new positions to keep up with the needs, but our growth rate has definitely slowed compared to pre-recessionary times," he said.

- Candy Woodall can also be reached at cwoodall@yorkdispatch.com.