Butler has lowest unemployment rate in 7-county area

| Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, 2:15 p.m.

Verizon's surprising announcement that it will slash 600 jobs in its Cranberry call center was a reminder to Butler County officials that even though unemployment rates have been dropping, that can change in an instant.

“I still think Cranberry is a desirable area within Western Pennsylvania,” township supervisor Chairman Bruce Mazzoni said. “Obviously, I think it's a big jump, but in the long haul, I don't think it's a worry. I think the building is attractive for someone to move in.”

Butler County had a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 5.4 percent in December, the lowest in the seven-county area, according to the most recent numbers available from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. The state had a seasonally adjusted December unemployment rate of 6.9 percent.

Despite the low unemployment rate in Butler County, Mazzoni said that he sees the employment rate as a regional and state issue. He pointed to the recent US Airways announcement that it is closing a Moon flight operations center and moving 600 jobs to the Dallas-Fort Worth area in about 18 months. Along with the 600 jobs in Cranberry, Verizon said it will cut another 430 jobs in a nearby call center in Marshall.

PPG Industries is planning to consolidate some operations into the Cranberry Woods complex, adding about 600 jobs there, Mazzoni noted. Cranberry has added thousands of new jobs in the past five years, as Westinghouse moved the bulk of its operations from Monroeville to Cranberry.

The Marcellus shale industry has brought jobs to Butler County, too, at related businesses.

“Butler County's pretty well-positioned,” said Ken Raybuck, executive director of the Butler County Community Development Corp. “There are still opportunities for people at small- and mid-sized companies.”

He said most of the growth has been in the southwestern portion of the county, including Cranberry, Jackson and Adams, with additional growth in the mid-section. Several manufacturing companies in the Petrolia area remain strong.

The development corporation is “exploring ways to connect high schools and employers to get students ready through real-life experiences,” Raybuck said.

“A number of companies are saying they would hire if they could find people with the basic skill sets they're looking for, and they'd train them at the company,” he said.

Though Butler County's jobs numbers look strong, monthly unemployment rates don't tell the whole story. The state relies on data collected by the U.S. Department of Labor through phone surveys of about 2,000 people to calculate the rates.

“You really need to look at the trends, what's happening over a period of time,” said Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry spokeswoman Sara Goulet.

Frank Gamrat, senior economist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy in Castle Shannon, said more dependable statistics come from employer surveys based on payroll numbers.

“I'm not going to say Butler is doing something more magical than in Pittsburgh” Gamrat said. “Obviously, Cranberry and Mars has become really popular with Pittsburghers. They're living there and commuting to the city. Its location at Interstate 76 and Interstate 79 has made growth around Cranberry easier, and property taxes are cheaper.”

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