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As the pandemic stretches on, job growth in the Pittsburgh area continues to stall

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Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The Pittsburgh region continued to experience little job growth in October, according to state estimates released this week.

Employment in the Pittsburgh region continues to stagnate amid the ever-unfolding pandemic, according to new state estimates.

The Pittsburgh metropolitan area has experienced minimal job growth over the past year with roughly 50,000 fewer residents employed in October than just before the pandemic.

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry released the new data Tuesday. It shows that more than 46,000 workers have exited the regional labor force since COVID-19 arrived, meaning they are not working or looking for work.

Employment Oct. 2021 chart.jpeg
Courtesy of Chris Briem
Since the fall of 2020, job growth has flatlined in the Pittsburgh area. Roughly 50,000 fewer residents were employed in October than just before the pandemic.

Chris Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research, said the labor force shrinkage likely reflects a fundamental shift for workers.

“This black swan event has sort of caused this shift,” he said, referring to the shock triggered by COVID-19. “That's the nature of the reset, and that's something [that] sort of contracted the labor force here, I think in a more permanent way than people are thinking of right now.”

But David Passmore, a retired education professor at Penn State University, noted that most major sectors in the area experienced some degree of job growth in October.

“So everywhere there's progress, but there's a long way to go yet,” he said of the economic recovery.

Labor force Oct. 2021 chart.jpeg
Courtesy of Chris Briem
Care-taking responsibilities, early retirements, and a lack of population growth could all help to explain stagnant labor force participation locally.

Nationally, employment remained essentially unchanged over the past year in 293 metropolitan areas, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Thursday. But non-seasonally adjusted, non-farm payroll employment rose in 96 regions, with the Los Angeles, New York City, and Dallas areas experiencing the largest gains.

Briem said the composition of Pittsburgh’s workforce appears to have held back local growth.

With the presence of local universities and the long-term aging of the population, he said the region has especially high concentrations of younger and older workers. And he noted that, during the pandemic, both groups have been especially likely to exit the labor force.

They’re probably not waiting to jump back into a job, he said.

“They may have retired early. They may have made permanent choices in their careers and their lives that may not be putting them back to work anytime soon. Or … I think we may not have as many workers moving into the region as we've seen in the past,” Briem said.

COVID-19 has prompted many workers to reassess their work lives. And Briem noted that caretaking responsibilities and concerns about COVID also top the list of reasons people have exited the workforce.

“If you’ve decided to shift into staying at home and caring for your children or maybe elders in your household, you might be in a place where you’re not waiting to come back to work,” he said.

Passmore noted that the pandemic has prompted employers to reshape how they operate, too.

“There's an opportunity here for the employers and for the businesses to re-engineer their processes to start including more technology” and, thus, change their labor needs, he said. “At the same time, this is giving people an opportunity to make a career assessment and decide where they want to be.”

Briem said, over the long term, Pittsburgh’s economy will grow as the region competes for new investment and jobs.

“Nothing here is saying that's not going to happen,” Briem said of the employment data. “It's just going to be from these new levels.”

The new figures show that between September and October the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in Pittsburgh and surrounding counties fell to 5.9% from 6.1%. In October, close to 69,000 people in the region wanted a job but couldn’t find one, according to the data.

The Pittsburgh metro area covers Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland counties. In October 2020, their collective unemployment rate stood at 6.8%.

Statewide, 6% of people who sought work last month were unemployed. Nationally, 4.6% of job seekers couldn’t find work.

In the Pittsburgh area, the total number of non-farm jobs grew by 2,600 between September and October – a 0.2% increase. Seasonally adjusted figures show there were about 1.1 million jobs in the region last month. There were 25,000, or 2.3%, fewer jobs in October 2020.

The labor force, meanwhile, slipped by 700 workers between September and October. Roughly 1.2 million people in the Pittsburgh region were employed or sought employment in both months.

There was a seasonal bump in education jobs last month as the new academic year continued to ramp up. The leisure and hospitality sector registered the largest year-over-year jump, adding 13,500 jobs in the region between October 2020 and October 2021.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.
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