Fayette economic base to expand
“We have to do a much better job of educating people,” said Bill Flanagan, executive vice president of corporate relations for the Allegheny Conference, when addressing the dropout rate in Fayette County.
Flanagan was a guest speaker during the Lunch and Learn conference held on Tuesday at the Connellsville Canteen Coffee Shop.
While Flanagan and Michael Jordan, director of Fay-Penn Economic Development Council, discussed the need for skilled workers and striving to lower the dropout rate, they highlighted the positive progress in the county.
Flanagan and Jordan said that a turnaround is in progress and the area must begin to face the challenges it will bring.
Fayette County Cultural Trust presented the event with the Seton Hill University E-Magnify.
Flanagan and Jordan said the economy in the county — as well as in Connellsville — is expanding.
Unlike past recessions, the Pittsburgh region (of which Fayette County and Connellsville are a part) came out of the recent recession well ahead of the nation, said Flanagan.
“The number of people employed in the 10-county region now exceeds the number of employed in 1979, at the height of the steel industry, by 100,000,” Flanagan said.
He believes the emphasis is shifting to the pockets of the region that have been left behind.
Connellsville was one of five communities determined to have the pieces in place to take advantage of programs to help it develop.
People interested in living in the new economies are searching for opportunities in areas that can provide jobs and a good quality of life.
For example, Flanagan said, they are looking for things like museums, the Aviary and similar advantages, as well as access to outdoor recreation.
He pointed to the Great Allegheny Passage, which runs through Connellsville, as something that provides a recreational outlet through hiking and cycling. He said people are looking to find jobs that do not require them to commute and communities with retail shopping in a downtown area within walking distance.
That, coupled with affordable real estate, would make Connellsville an attractive location.
Flanagan said while the region was recovering, Marcellus shale natural gas was discovered.
“That adds fuel to the fire,” said Flanagan.
The problem, however, said Flanagan will be that by the end of the decade, it will grow increasingly difficult to find qualified people to fill jobs.
A decrease in the baby boomers in the workforce will mean fewer people eligible to fill those positions.
And part of the problem will be the high dropout rate among high school students.
“We have to do a much better job of educating people,” he said.
In just the energy sector alone, Flanagan said those companies will produce 100,000 jobs in the next decade, a number equal to 10 percent of the present workforce.
The jobs will “go someplace else” like Ohio, if workers can't be found, he said.
Right now, there are 20,000 jobs that are going unfilled in the region, he said. There are people to fill those positions, but they do not have the skills.
Jordan said Fay-Penn has moved in a direction that should help Fayette County become more attractive. He pointed to the upcoming opening of the Dunbar Industrial Park as well as other locations along the Route 119 corridor that will provide space for businesses to move into the county.
According to Jordan, there are many advantages that make the county attractive — excellent road access and the three Class 1 railroads (CSX, Norfolk Southern and the Wheeling and Lake Erie) connecting the location to major East Coast markets within a 600-mile radius.
There are the Connellsville airport and shipping locations along the Monongahela River around Brownsville.
The smaller, 22-mile SWP Railroad, with connections at Connellsville, is part of the equation.
“Three years ago, 300 railcars were delivered along the 22 miles,” said Jordan. “Last year, 9,000 cars were delivered.”
Most of that was for loads of sand used in the fracking process.
The major oil and gas companies have increased the numbers of employees in the county.
Jordan said an adequate work force is a big challenge that Fay-Penn is tackling.
The young people must understand that jobs will be available that pay wages that they can raise a family on, he said. They must, at the least, get a GED and go on to get a higher level of training, such as an associate degree or technical training.
Jordan said the economy will expand in all areas, including agriculture.
Fay-Penn is working to expand the county's farmers markets. He reminded small-business owners in the crowd that even those markets will work to expand their customer base by drawing people into town, where they will spend their dollars for other goods and services.
Karl Polacek is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-626-3538.