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Times changing for Alle-Kiski Valley jobs

| Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, 9:55 a.m.

Heavy industry, the lifeblood that surged through the Alle-Kiski Valley for more than a century, has been reduced to a trickle. Industrial giants such as PPG Industries, Alcoa and ATI-Allegheny Ludlum dominated the list of the largest local employers for decades.

But that is no longer the case.

A survey of top local employers by the Valley News Dispatch shows three of the top six are medical organizations and Giant Eagle Supermarkets is number one in jobs.

Ludlum, the specialty stainless steel manufacturer, has been the Valley's perennial leader in employment, despite periodic layoffs of workers usually for several months at a time. In 2008, the last time the newspaper did this informal survey, Ludlum was still the king, employing 2,050 people.

Four years later, Ludlum has only 150 fewer employees, but, the king has been dethroned and the O'Hara-based Giant Eagle has taken its place.

Giant Eagle's footprint has grown steadily. It opened its first store on Pittsburgh's Brownsville Road in 1936, continued expanding into first the Pittsburgh area, then western Pennsylvania and now has stores operating in Ohio, Maryland and West Virginia.

By the 1980s there were 52 Giant Eagle stores. That increased to 137 in 1990s and now the company has more than 200 stores, many of them “superstores” that are 100,000-plus square feet in size, and employs 35,000 people, both full-time and part-time.

According to the company, there are slightly more than 2,300 of them working in the Alle-Kiski Valley, at six supermarkets, six Get-Go gas stations/convenience stores and the corporate headquarters in RIDC park.

In 2012, the Valley's top 10 employers accounted for 13,038 jobs. Four years ago, the top 10 employers accounted for 9,891 jobs; however, the list did not include Giant Eagle or UPMC facilities.

Still, the numbers reflect what has been a recent positive trend in the Pittsburgh labor market area, which includes the Valley's four counties.

“From July 2011 to July 2012, jobs were actually up in the Pittsburgh (market) by 1.5 percent, which was actually a good bit more than the state overall,” said Lauren Nimmel, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. “The state was up 0.4 percent during that period. So Pittsburgh showed a little more than three times that.”

Nimmel said that in February 2001, just before the recession hit, the Pittsburgh labor market had reached a record high for employment and it appears those days have returned.

“Pittsburgh is one of only a few (labor markets) in the state that have reached pre-recession levels. In other words, all the jobs lost in the recession from 2007 to 2009 have been recovered,” Nimmel said, as well as those in March to November 2001 recession.

“Manufacturing is up a little, which is surprising too because manufacturing has been constantly declining,” Nimmel said.

The slight decline in employment at Allegheny Ludlum has been due mostly to attrition, retirements, people who find employment elsewhere and transfers to Ludlum facilities in other locations, company spokesman Dan Greenfield said.

Ludlum endures

“In the Western Pennsylvania facilities, while there is not a lot of hourly movement, there is a lot of salaried movement — technical people, sales people,” Greenfield said. “The operations are pretty much consistent. It doesn't mean that Ludlum has fewer people, it just means that the Valley locations have about 100 fewer people.”

Although it has been displaced as king of the employment hill in the Valley, Ludlum is poised to remain a force in providing jobs locally. That is due primarily to the company's decision to build its state-of-the-art, $1.1 billion hot strip mill at its Harrison Township steel mill. He said construction of the mill is within its timetable and should be completed next year.

“That hot mill opens up the possibility for Ludlum to sell products that it can't sell now,” Greenfield said. “We will be able to make alloys that are thinner and wider than anything we make now and sell them anywhere in the world.”

“The hot mill is a transformational process for the whole company,” he said. “That hot mill will be central to every operation we have.”Four other manufacturing companies are on the list although not all would not be considered the same type of heavy industry as Ludlum.

They include Phillips-Respironics, a high-tech manufacturer of health care equipment at six facilities in Murrysville, Upper Burrell and Plum that employ 1,407 people and is the Valley's fourth largest employer. Curtiss-Wright makes electronic motor controls at its Benshaw unit in RIDC and equipment for the nuclear energy industry at its electro-mechanical division in Harmar. Its employment numbers have increased by 300 since 2008.

High-tech growth

Medrad is another high-tech manufacturer of medical devices with facilities in Indiana Township, Clinton Township and RIDC Park. Its A-K employment declined by about 180 jobs, which is due at least in part to locating some employees to its world headquarters in Marshall since 2008.

Alcoa, one of the Valley's employment bulwarks for decades, barely managed to stay on the top 10 list. It tied for 10th place with Penn United Technologies of Jefferson Township, which is involved with high-precision metal manufacturing. Both have 600 employees.

Jim McKain, Penn United's human resources manager, said that while the company has dropped about 50 jobs since the 2008 survey, the company has made the best of the situation. Penn United's sales topped a record $100 million this year.

“We're busier than we were before the recession, but we have found so many efficiencies that we are able to do it with fewer people,” Mc-Kain said. “We just finished a record-breaking year and we are on pace to do it again.”

PPG Industries — like Ludlum and Alcoa a top-three job provider in the Valley for decades — fell off the top 10 employers list. It lost workers when it sold its glass manufacturing plant in East Deer and now has 545 employees working at its operations in Harmar and Springdale.

Health care rises

While Giant Eagle represents the retail foods sector of the local economy, another sector that has risen in prominence locally is the health care industry.

That sector is represented by three entities: Allegheny Valley Hospital, Armstrong County Memorial Hospital and UPMC.

UPMC's rise as a dominant health care provider in the Pittsburgh region and throughout the state, has had its effect on the Alle-Kiski Valley, moving it into third place on the employers' list. UPMC has opened a number of facilities in Harrison and New Kensington over the past several years, but spokesman Gloria Kreps said the bulk of its 1,800 employees in the Valley are at UPMC St. Margaret hospital near Aspinwall.

One company that probably would have made the top 10 list is retail goliath Wal-Mart. The company, however, did not respond to Valley News Dispatch requests for information.

According to the Arkansas-based company's website, Wal-Mart has more than 48,000 employees at 159 stores across Pennsylvania — an average of about 300 per location. Since there are four Wal-Mart stores — Harrison, Mills Mall in Frazer, Waterworks in O'Hara and Hilltop near Kittanning — and one Sam's Club store in the Valley, it may account for about 1,500 jobs locally.

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or

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