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Western Pennsylvania unemployment at two-year low

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Unemployment in the Pittsburgh area fell to 7.0 percent in February — the lowest level in nearly two years — as the number of people without work dropped and employment increased slightly.

The labor market in the seven-county Western Pennsylvania region "continues to improve steadily," Robert Dye, senior economist at PNC Financial Services Group Inc., said in reaction to the 0.2 of a percentage point drop that the state reported today.

Jim Ferrari and Tracy Acklin, who started new customer service jobs with Peoples Natural Gas Co. on March 7, also have an inkling the local job market is perking up.

Ferrari, of Carnegie, had been out of work since leaving a job with Verizon in November 2009. During his time off, he took community college classes in information technology to supplement his bachelor's degree in communications from Duquesne University.

"I applied for at least 100 jobs," he said, "and only about 5 percent of the applications led to interviews."

Acklin took a buyout from Verizon in December. "I was one of the lucky ones" to find a new job quickly, said the Plum resident, who applied to Peoples in January. "I know other people who have been looking for a job for two years. Some are still looking." The North Shore-based natural gas utility has filled 42 positions out of about 65 needed for a customer service center that will start up this summer.

The region's February unemployment rate, adjusted for seasonal hiring factors, represents a fifth consecutive monthly drop. The number hasn't been this low since April 2009, when it was 7 percent. By contrast, unemployment was 8 percent across Pennsylvania in February, and 8.9 percent nationwide.

Pittsburgh's rate remains significantly higher than the 4.6 percent rate in February 2008. The recession officially began in December 2007, but it did not significantly impact the region until late 2008, economists said. The recession officially ended in July 2009.

The recession in the Pittsburgh area began about November 2008, which was the first month the region experienced year-over-year decreases in employment levels, said Frank Gamrat, an economist and senior research associate at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy in Castle Shannon.

Robert Strauss, a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, called the latest figures hopeful, although the region continues to lose population, and many workers are underemployed.

"The next question is the quality of the jobs (being created), and the wage rates," he said, adding local and state leaders can do nothing to boost the job market, other than to boost confidence by not raising taxes. Still, Western Pennsylvania appears to be responding about the same as the rest of the country in terms of economic recovery, Strauss said.

The unemployment rate is based on data from a survey of households in the region's seven counties -- Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland -- to determine who is working and looking for work, as well as the number of people employed, state spokeswoman Lauren Nimal said.

Based on that seasonally adjusted survey, employment increased by 1,500 jobs in February to about 1.134 million, which is about 21,300 more than a year ago.

Dye believes the region's economy is showing signs it will continue to improve but that it has not fully recovered from the recession. That won't happen until total employment figures are back to pre-recession levels, he said.

"Small businesses are being more comfortable with hiring," Dye said, noting the findings of a recent PNC Economic Outlook for spring that showed 15 percent of the small and midsized businesses surveyed expect to hire full-time workers in the next six months.

"I continue to see a strong performance over the remainder of the year," he said.



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