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Unemployment rate down to 4.8% in Pittsburgh area

| Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014, 9:33 a.m.

Pittsburgh is riding along with the growing national economy: The region's unemployment rate fell last month to its lowest level in more than six years.

The November unemployment rate for the seven-county Pittsburgh region declined two-tenths of a percentage point to 4.8 percent, the lowest since April 2008, the state Department of Labor & Industry said on Tuesday.

Barring any major disruption to the national economy, Pittsburgh could be on track to hit record low unemployment of 4.1 percent next year, said Kurt Rankin, an economist with PNC Financial Services Group, Downtown.

“If the national economy strengthens, as PNC is forecasting, that should continue to help Pittsburgh, and there's no reason we shouldn't hit that record in 2015,” Rankin said.

The Pittsburgh region lost 500 nonfarm jobs in November, mostly related to seasonal work, but remained ahead of a year ago. Total nonfarm jobs were up 9,100 from November 2013, and the unemployment rate declined 1.5 percentage points in that time.

More people began looking for work. Pittsburgh's labor force grew by 2,000 from the previous month, to 1,242,000 — which is 4,000 more than a year ago.

The shale gas boom helped Western Pennsylvania recover from the recession sooner than the rest of the nation, but job growth stalled in 2013 as the region waited for the rest of the nation to ramp up demand for products made here, Rankin said.

The national economy appears to be hitting its stride more than four years after the recession ended. Employers are on track to add the most jobs annually since 1999. The economy grew 5 percent in the third quarter, the best it has been since 2003, according to PNC. Growth in real gross domestic product was better than 3.5 percent for four of the past five quarters, the exception being a 2.1 percent drop in the first quarter of 2014 because of an unusually harsh winter.

Lower gasoline prices gave consumers money to spend during the holiday shopping season. That should translate to strong retail sales in December and could feed spending into January, Rankin said, which may convince stores to hold onto workers after the holiday rush is finished.

“Consumers actually have more money in their wallets. It's not just a feel-good story, it's a reality story,” Rankin said.

Pittsburgh-area retailers added 4,400 jobs in November when they staffed up for the holidays. But those are not the kinds of high-paying jobs that drive robust economic growth, said Frank Gamrat, an economist with the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy in Castle Shannon.

Higher paying positions with goods-producing industries or business services need to be a bigger part of the job gains, he said.

Pittsburgh's manufacturers and transportation companies improved in November but have not fully recovered jobs lost during the past year. Manufacturers added 800 jobs in November but were down 1,500 from a year ago. Transportation and warehousing companies gained 700 jobs last month, but were down 300 from November 2013. Construction companies shed 600 jobs as projects ended with the onset of winter, and were down 400 from a year ago.

The job market “is still moving in the right direction,” Gamrat said. “I just wish the mix of jobs that we're growing was different.”

Chris Fleisher is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7854 or cfleisher@tribweb.com.

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