The gas rush is pointing Rusty Margaria toward what he hopes will be a career. Margaria, 27, of West Middletown started working with Western Land Services Inc. in Cecil in October 2010 as an entry-level title searcher and earned a promotion to team leader less than a year later. He has seen that kind of life-changing opportunity happen for others in Washington County, where he has lived most of his life, he said. "By the time I was growing up, (Avella) was the pretty ragged leftovers of a coal town," said Margaria, who dropped out of college at 19 with a newborn at home and worked in retail for more than four years, often balancing two jobs. "It's definitely been a big difference, just seeing these local people struggle for so many years, and now, having that financial backing, they don't have to struggle." Largely because of energy sector growth, including drilling for gas in Marcellus shale, life is changing for people in Washington County. Its job growth ranked in the top five nationally when federal statistics trackers compared the first and second quarters of 2011 to the year prior. Butler County, bolstered by Westinghouse Electric Co.'s move from Monroeville, ranked near the top nationally in job and wage growth, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The drilling industry has helped people across Pennsylvania, said Kurt Rankin, an economist with PNC Financial Services Group, Downtown. "It's like found money," Rankin said. "It does have a secondary spillover effect in that the jobs that are created there are relatively high-paying jobs. That brings an entirely new income base to those counties." From 2000 to 2007, the state recorded 17,000 to 20,000 workers in mining and logging, Department of Labor records show. That has jumped by more than 50 percent, largely since May 2009. More than 33,000 Pennsylvanians worked in that sector as of November. About 1,000 of those jobs are in Washington County, where average annual salaries in the sector climbed from about $60,000 through most of the decade to $82,400 in 2010, the most recent statistics available. The county also added jobs in professional and business services, construction, leisure and hospitality, trade and transportation, and finance; industry- and state-funded economic studies link some of that job growth to the drilling industry. Butler County surpassed several counties in drilling permits, largely because gas there can contain propane and other hydrocarbons, which can increase its price. Royal Dutch Shell PLC planned this month to start adding about 20 wells in Butler and Lawrence counties. Rex Energy Corp. intends to ramp up production, and one of its joint ventures, Keystone Midstream Services LLC, plans to open a processing plant in Jackson in spring. The company will need 120 construction workers for the site and 30 to build a pipeline, said Michael Brinkmeyer, Keystone's general manager. It has four other projects pending. Hunter Truck Sales, based in Butler, has had record sales in all of its departments, executives there said. From increased sales and parts shipments statewide, opening a new store in Clearfield County and other business boosts largely from the influx of drillers, they've increased their staff from about 500 to 732 in less than two years, said Jeffrey Hunter, one of four third-generation owners of the family company. "That makes me very excited," Hunter said. "I see Western Pennsylvania and Butler County as being a hot spot for the whole country." The drilling boom came at the right time, during an economic downtown, said Emil Veal, vice president at Stephenson Equipment Inc. in Washington County. "It has taken over our business -- a lot more than the construction we're used to doing," Veal said. "We would have been in serious trouble if not for that." Frank Puskarich thought his restaurant, Hog father's Old Fashioned BBQ, would make $15,000 to $16,000 a week. Instead, it is doing double that -- nearly $2 million in annual sales, he said. He opened a second restaurant and plans to open a third this summer to cater to workers at well sites. On the busiest days, he has 800 to 1,000 meals to prepare by noon. "I'm blessed. I say it every day," said Puskarich, 57, of Peters. "This is like Grand Central Station for people in the gas business at lunch time." Not everyone is benefiting. Barbara Sobolewski passes at least three well sites as she drives from her Mt. Pleasant home to the McDonald Pharmacy she owns, but the drilling boom hasn't brought her customers, and she doesn't know anyone who has benefited, she said. That might be because many early recruits came from other states. Adam Stoffella sees a few new customers at his McDonald barbershop, but doesn't expect any big change in business because most gas well workers are from out-of-state, he said. "It's all eventually going to come to an end," he said. "You either have property and you're making money, or you don't and you're jealous. It's like winning the lottery."
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