Pittsburgh area unemployment rate drops to 5.8%

| Tuesday, April 29, 2014, 11:03 a.m.

A slight drop in the Pittsburgh region's unemployment rate has positioned the city well for a jobs recovery as the national economy picks up steam, economists said.

The seven-county seasonally adjusted jobless rate fell by a 10th of a percentage point last month to 5.8 percent, according to preliminary figures released on Tuesday by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

Meanwhile, 4,100 people entered the labor force, suggesting that confidence in the Pittsburgh job market is improving.

Though the gains are modest, the jobs report is about as good as one could expect without help from the national economy and puts Pittsburgh in a decent position once business investment picks up, said Kurt Rankin, an economist at PNC Financial Services.

“If the U.S. economy is about to improve, as we're forecasting, then ... we're in a pretty good position to make that move on the back of increasing U.S. business demand,” Rankin said.

Supported in part by a boom in natural gas drilling, Pittsburgh got off to an early post-recession recovery, but the regional economy has stalled the past couple of years.

A PNC survey this spring of small and medium-sized businesses showed that confidence was higher than last fall as firms shake off the doldrums of a long, harsh winter.

Businesses have been hoarding their profits since the recession ended in 2009, Rankin said, but that began to change late last year when equipment purchases picked up. As those infrastructure investments continue, the city's manufacturers and technology firms will reap the benefits.

“Business investment coincides with what Pittsburgh's manufacturing wheelhouse produces, which is computer equipment, metals, electronic equipment, things that businesses will invest in,” Rankin said. “And if our forecasts bear out, then that U.S. demand can create manufacturing jobs in the region, professional business services will continue to expand to meet national demand.”

North Shore-based Avere is among the Pittsburgh-area firms expecting to add jobs this year. The six-year-old company makes data storage technology for the oil and gas, life sciences and entertainment industries.

Avere expects to add 50 people to its workforce of 100, said Rebecca Thompson, vice president of marketing.

“Everybody's seeing pretty strong demand” for data storage, she said.

Nonfarm employers in the Pittsburgh region added 7,400 jobs from the previous month, led by professional and business services, and the leisure and hospitality industry.

Pittsburgh's seasonally adjusted employment rate has dropped every month since May 2013, though some of those monthly gains occurred because the pool of workers shrunk. People who stop looking for work, perhaps out of frustration, are not counted as unemployed, and gains in the unemployment rate often reflect that shrinking pie.

Pittsburgh's job totals are not where they were a year ago, with total nonfarm jobs down 5,400 from the same time last year. Still, the gain in March was a step in the right direction, economists said.

“Just as a snapshot of the Pittsburgh economy, it's actually quite good,” said George Mokrzan, director of economics for Huntington National Bank.

Pittsburgh's unemployment rate is well below the national rate of 6.7 percent in March. The U.S. Department of Labor is expected to release April's unemployment figures on Friday.

Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or cfleisher@tribweb.com.

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