Dip in workforce lands Westmoreland near bottom of national list

| Tuesday, July 15, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Brian Lapp remembers a time when there was no problem finding people to fill jobs at the Elliott Co. in Jeannette.

That was then.

Now, getting the right people into the right jobs is challenging, in part because of an aging workforce moving into retirement and a lack of skilled workers to replace them, said Lapp, vice president of human resources for Elliott.

It's a common dilemma that has landed Westmoreland County near the bottom of a federal list on employment growth and declines in the nation's largest counties.

The number of employed people in the county dropped by 1.3 percent from December 2012 through December 2013, according to numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The dip landed Westmore-land 228th out of 334 counties on the list, figures show.

The decline doesn't necessarily mean that more local people are losing their jobs, or that the county's economy is faltering, officials are quick to point out.

The county's employment level stayed somewhat stable through the 2008 recession, but Western Pennsylvania is one of the “oldest” regions in the country, and retirements have caused the number of employed workers to dip, said James Smith, president and CEO of the Westmoreland County Economic Growth Connection, a private, nonprofit economic development group.

Census figures show that about 42 percent of the county's 362,437 residents are 50 or older.

Some companies, especially in manufacturing, anticipate that “within the next five to 10 years, a full third of the workforce could be retiring,” Smith said.

“We are starting to see this right now,” he added. “This is really the issue behind a lot of our employment needs in the county.”

Many of Elliott's longtime workers have retired, and more departures are on the way. The company plans to hire nearly 100 people this year, but vacancies can remain unfilled for as long as a year while eligible workers are sought, said Lapp, who has been with Elliott for about 10 years.

“We're still finding candidates, but they're less skilled,” he added.

In the past, Lapp said, “we could hire someone from the street who could come in and within six months to a year, they could be pretty much up to speed with the type of work we do.”

Experts note that the problem is correctable if time and money are invested in training young workers.

In Westmoreland County, job opportunities abound in the energy industry, driven by Marcellus shale natural gas drilling and the ancillary industries that have spun off to support it, said Bill Thompson, executive director of the Westmoreland/Fayette Workforce Investment Board.

Giving potential gas workers the skills needed in that field should be a priority, Thompson said.

“That's what we need to do — get qualified people into the workforce,” county Commissioner Charles Anderson said. “That's what we're trying to do through the community college and through all the various resources of trade schools throughout the county.”

Westmoreland County Community College is set to open an Advanced Technology Center in August in the former Sony plant in East Huntingdon. The center will house workforce development programs such as computer drafting, welding and natural gas drilling training.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics analyzes the number of people employed in the country's largest counties each year.

A county with an average annual employment level of at least 75,000 people is considered a large county. Westmoreland County had 132,309 workers as of December.

The number of employed workers increased 1.8 percent nationally to 136.1 million, with 2.3 million jobs gained from December 2012 to December 2013, statistics show.

Weld County, Colo., had the most growth, with a 6 percent increase. A construction boom in that area boosted the numbers, according to reports.

St. Claire County, Ill., had the largest decline — a 3.1 percent drop, figures show. That county includes East St. Louis, which has been in a downward economic spiral for decades.

Not all counties at the bottom of the list — such as Fairfax County, Va., — are suffering economically.

Like Westmoreland County, Fairfax, which is in Washington's suburbs, is home to many older residents who have retired, but it has had healthy growth in its business sector.

Two other counties at the bottom of the list, Arlington and Alexandria City, also are Washington suburbs.

Last year's government shutdown contributed to the communities landing at the bottom of the list, because some employees were temporarily out of the workforce, said Amy Shields, operations and research manager for the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership.

Shields said she isn't worried about the report because Alexandria's 3.6 percent unemployment rate as of April remained well below the national rate of 6.3 percent.

Westmoreland County officials also are quick to point out that Bureau of Labor Statistics figures differ from the unemployment rate, which measures the percentage of eligible workers who are looking for a job but can't find one.

Westmoreland County posted a 4.7 percent unemployment rate in April, below the national rate and the Pennsylvania rate of 5.7 percent, according to federal numbers.

Staff writer Jacob Tierney contributed to this report. Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or kandren@tribweb.com.

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