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Western Pennsylvania unemployment rate dips to 7.4 percent

| Tuesday, April 2, 2013, 11:06 a.m.

The unemployment rate for the Pittsburgh region fell slightly in February as a surprising jump in construction jobs during what is generally the industry's off-season helped provide support to the local economy and a strengthening jobs market.

The jobless rate for the seven-county area dipped to 7.4 percent from 7.5 percent in January, the state Department of Labor and Industry reported Tuesday. The rate was 6.8 percent in February 2012.

There were 94,000 people in the region without a job in February, according to a separate survey of area households, down from 95,500 the month earlier. The data are not adjusted for seasonal fluctuations.

“There's still a lot of people out of work,” said Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Develoment.

Construction jobs typically dwindle in cold-weather months, but a higher-than-usual 1,100 jobs were added around the region. Economists said the growth was fueled by a combination of public infrastructure work, major commercial projects and a spurt in home building.

“Construction was surprising on the upside. We normally see construction job growth in the months of May and June,” said Kurt Rankin, an economist at PNC Financial Services Group.

Rankin cited ongoing reconstruction of Route 28 and building of The Tower at PNC Plaza, a 33-story project begun last spring and slated for completion in mid-2015, as examples of work that is providing construction employment.

“Those are high-paying jobs,” Rankin said. “That means incomes which will help support things like more retail spending.”

The Pittsburgh region covers Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

The decline in the area's unemployment rate mirrors what's happening on a state and national level as the economy shakes off a recession. Statewide unemployment declined to 8.1 percent in February from 8.2 percent in January. The national jobless rate fell to 7.7 percent from 7.9 percent.

New jobs in construction also stem from home building in the region, said Bill McNamara, CEO of United Lender Services Corp. Based in Robinson, the firm provides title and settlement services to home mortgage lenders.

“Our focus is national, but a good amount of our work is in Western Pennsylvania. And that volume continues to grow at a pretty steady pace,” McNamara said.

As a result, United Lender Services plans to hire about 150 people locally in the next 12 months to do residential title and settlement work, he said. The hires will roughly double the firm's employment.

Those kinds of professional and technical services jobs grew by 1,300 in February, the state report said. Hiring at many colleges and universities after the holiday break added 3,200 jobs.

Offsetting such gains, however, was the loss of 2,100 jobs in retail, which trimmed employment after the holiday shopping season. Leisure and hospitality employment fell by 2,300.

Different sectors' job gains and losses left the Pittsburgh region with a net increase of 1,300 jobs in February over January.

According to the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, Western Pennsylvania employers have about 26,000 job openings. Yablonsky said most of those positions pay between $40,000 and $60,000 a year.

Thomas Olson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media; tolson@tribweb.com.

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