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Summer Hiring Drives Uptick In Local Employment, But Longer-Term Gains Remain Elusive

Ashton Jones
90.5 WESA
Although employment remains below pre-pandemic levels, businesses have struggled to find workers as COVID-19 eases.

Summer hiring has driven an uptick in local job activity more than a year after the coronavirus pandemic arrived, a recent report finds. But employment for longer-term work has yet to climb above levels reached early last fall.

The Pittsburgh region added nearly 142,000 jobs between April 2020 and 2021, putting local employment at about 94% of pre-pandemic levels in February 2020 and 93% of what it was in April 2019, according to figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Nationally, employment is 95% of what it was in April 2019.

In an analysis of local data, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development found that the jump in employment was due in large part to seasonal hiring and a resurgence of industries hit hardest by COVID-19,.

Noting that monthly job losses reached a historic high in April 2020, Jim Futrell, vice president of market research at the Allegheny Conference, said, “We were expecting a pretty significant year-over-year increase over April 2020.” But he added, “We were reassured that we saw employment in the region increase by roughly 15 percent over April 2020, because I think that shows a very solid rebound.”

Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research, said much of the job creation owes to seasonal shifts in industries like construction and hospitality — trends that were typical in the pre-pandemic economy. Briem noted that construction, along with leisure and hospitality, accounted for about two-thirds of the local net gain in jobs between March and April.

Without those seasonal job gains, Briem said, employment in the Pittsburgh area has largely flatlined since early fall of 2020. In April, the seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate for the region stood at 7.4%.

“It's good to see seasonal growth – it shows that some parts of the economy are getting back to where they were,” Briem said. “But it's pretty normal to see an uptick in jobs in the summer. … We're still at a baseline well below, both in jobs and the size of the labor force, where we were just as we entered COVID now over a year ago.”

Companies in sectors that were especially vulnerable to the pandemic's economic fallout are showing signs of recovery. Along with hospitality and construction, they included industries like retail, transportation and warehousing.

Futrell said that in Pennsylvania, some of those businesses faced especially strict COVID-19 mitigation measures. The state was one of a few to ban construction projects at the outset of the pandemic, with a moratorium that lasted through the month of April 2020.

The Allegheny Conference did not definitively link such restrictions to employment levels. But its analysis shows that the number of construction jobs in Pennsylvania rose by 81% between April 2020 and April 2021, compared to 14% nationally, suggesting the state had more ground to make up. During the same period, leisure and hospitality employment increased by 76% in Pennsylvania, compared to 62% in the rest of the country. Such disparities were also recorded in the retail sector and in transportation and warehousing.

Summer hiring also helped employees in arts, entertainment, and recreation, the Allegheny Conference reported.

Employers across the country have struggled to rehire workers for a range of reasons. Some people are waiting to return to work until they are fully vaccinated or their children return to school or daycare. Others have switched professions. And there’s evidence that boosted unemployment benefits have led some workers to take more time to find higher-paying work.

In Pittsburgh, Briem said, an aging population could add to the strain on hiring. He said there is some evidence that older workers have retired early due to the pandemic. And certain industries, he added, are dependent on local university students, many of whom studied remotely or did not enroll at all this past school year.

Briem predicted that the region’s economic growth will turn largely on how well it can attract workers who continue to work remotely even after the pandemic ends.

“Pittsburgh will have to find ways to compete for workers as a place to live, potentially with jobs located elsewhere,” he said. “That type of shifting of workplace geography will probably be the number-one issue for Pittsburgh and other regions going forward.”