Western Pennsylvania jobs hit 23-year bottom

| Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2009

Think the employment numbers are bad in the Pittsburgh region•

They are, but the situation remains better than in the rest of the country -- and today's woes are nothing compared to what the region faced before.

"You can't escape a recession of this breadth anywhere," said Christopher Briem, a regional economist with the University of Pittsburgh. "But it's certainly true that, unlike other recessions, when things were worse here, it's remarkable that things are actually better."

Statistics released Monday by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry show that seasonally adjusted local unemployment for September topped 8 percent -- the highest since September 1986, when unemployment hit 8.2 percent amid the collapse of the steel industry.

Unlike then, when the region was hemorrhaging residents to other cities, unemployed workers have few places to go. Pittsburgh's unemployment rate is better than the national average and has been since October 2006.

Across the region, Allegheny County's unemployment was the lowest at 7.5 percent, while Fayette County came in at 10.3 percent. The statewide rate was 8.8 percent.

The heaviest losses last month were in construction and manufacturing jobs. Service industries added jobs, according to the department. The region lost 36,000 jobs during the past year.

Although that's nothing to celebrate, residents can take some solace from Pittsburgh's place in the national economy, said Robert Dye, vice president and senior economist for PNC Financial Services Group. The region has several strong industries such as education and health care, he said.

"Pittsburgh is poised to take advantage of this next round of economic expansion, which we are just experiencing," he said.

Technically, the national recession should end Thursday, when advance estimates of the third-quarter gross domestic product will be released and will show 3 percent annualized growth, Dye said. Unemployment should peak early next year, although jobs recovery could take a long time, he said.

Those numbers come on a "huge government-induced tailwind" driven broadly by the fiscal stimulus package and specifically by the federal cash-for-clunkers program, Dye said.

Use of state jobs centers increased over the past year, said Jim Hann, site administrator for the Allegheny East CareerLink office in Forest Hills. That office helped 345 people during the week of Oct. 12, compared with 241 people in the same week last year.

Yet, if things are any better here than the rest of the country, don't try telling that to Harvey Jacobs, 28, of Clairton.

Jacobs said he has applied for 81 warehouse jobs during the past 3 12 months without getting a single call from a potential employer. He hasn't had steady work in three years and gets by performing odd jobs.

"I can't get frustrated because I need a job, and I know I want one," he said.

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