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Roddey addresses group of laid-off executives

| Friday, July 26, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey volunteered sympathy and hope for better times in the coming decade as he spoke to more than 100 laid-off executives on Thursday, but he offered no real solution to their current plight.

"I believe this community is poised to grow, but whether that growth will be timed to meet your needs and your desire to stay here, I can't answer," Roddey told the audience at the Holiday Inn in Green Tree.

"We have a wonderful quality of life here. What we do not have yet is quality of opportunity," he said. "That's the key. We haven't made that connection yet, but we will in time."

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 61,885 people are out of work in the six-county region surrounding Pittsburgh. The networking group that invited Roddey to speak, Among Friends, sprang up last year as mid- to upper-level executives began to grapple with job losses as the economy slumped. Most of yesterday's crowd was over 40.

Among Friends members told Roddey that they hear officials bemoaning population loss in the region, but they may be forced to look for jobs elsewhere to support their families.

"On average, we are not doing well," Roddey conceded. "Other cities such as Cincinnati and Cleveland are pretty much going through the same thing. The magnitude of downsizing in this country has had a serious effect."

The reported 5.2 percent unemployment rate locally — which compares with 5.9 percent nationwide — is probably "much larger" than that, Roddey said. "I think a lot of people looking for jobs are no longer being counted," he said to replies of "That's right!" from the audience.

He sympathized with the position many are in, looking for jobs in their 50s and 60s.

"Regardless of what people tell you about not discriminating because of age," Roddey said, "if you're competing for jobs with people in their 30s and 40s, it's going to be a tough way to go."

At the end of his 45-minute presentation, his kind words and one-liners — "My plumber earns so much he doesn't make house calls." — earned him a standing ovation.

Roddey continued to hammer home themes that had to sound discouraging to many: The future of the region depends to a great measure on young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs graduating from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. Roddey also holds hope of attracting overseas companies, particularly in Europe, to open sales offices or supply chain sites here.

Preston Gibson, an unemployed sales and marketing manager, said it was his idea to invite Roddey to speak after he heard the county executive lay out a specific plan to aid the 1,200 administrative workers Kaufmann's had just decided to lay off.

"I thought, 'You're doing all this for the Kaufmann's people, what about the rest of us who have been out here for six months due to nothing we caused,'" Gibson recalled. "It was making us feel left out in left field."

He said he and his wife are raising their children in Pittsburgh and are home-schooling them. If his wife has to go back to work to help support the family and give up the home-schooling, they will move out of the city because they don't like the public schools.

James Harter, who has launched a company called TallySoft, which offers management solutions to retailers, said he hoped Roddey would address entrepreneurship.

"The future of the economic region is going to have nothing to do with the USXs or the USAirs," he said. "It's going to be entrepreneurship."

Roddey said there are county, state and private programs to help entrepreneurs write business plans and apply for seed money.

"There are a number of organizations that can help you if you have a good idea," he said, inviting entrepreneurs to call his office.

Roddey reminded people of the area's good qualities: its rivers and beautiful neighborhoods, its strong financial institutions and work ethic, its good housing stock and high-quality cultural institutions, its health care and universities.

"I would love to be able to solve each individual problem," Roddey said. "I can only say we are trying to change government, attract companies and encourage young people to stay. I hope you will have the opportunity to stay here and be here and participate in that."

Shirley Waselko, an information technology project manager, said she hopes Pittsburgh's turnaround happens soon: "Many of us were born and raised here, and we're being forced out of the region."

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