For Pittsburgh a future not reliant on steel was unthinkable ... and unavoidable

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The story of Pittsburgh's transformation over the last 30 years does not start with the economic miasma of the early 1980s. It starts with -- or, rather, evolved from -- the many decades of business and political decisions that preceded the steel industry's collapse.

So why has Pittsburgh been forced to change so much since the 1980s? Answering that requires first asking this: Why did Pittsburgh's economy refuse to diversify for so many years, before the worst had come -- and after it had been predicted?

• • •

Sheer geography made inevitable the production of steel that erupted from the river valleys of southwestern Pennsylvania. Rich seams of coal and river access gave Pittsburgh an unequaled competitive advantage in metal industries, decades before Andrew Carnegie's Edgar Thomson Works began production in 1875.

By late in the 20th century, there was no memory of Pittsburgh before steel. It was inconceivable to even consider what a future without steel would mean.

Long before the 1980s, warnings sounded repeatedly, promising that steel would not support Pittsburgh forever. At the end of World War II, the Allegheny Conference and the Chamber of Commerce brought economist Charles Roos to Pittsburgh.

His Econometric Institute's 1946 report made clear Pittsburgh faced stark economic choices, concluding the region would "slowly decline unless new industries employing women and those engaged in the production of consumer goods are attracted to the area."

It was not a message well received at the time.

The relative lack of women in the region's workforce was a concern in itself. Gender equality at work was not a common topic of the postwar era, yet female labor force participation in Pittsburgh so sharply trailed the nation that the implications could not be ignored.

The message that Pittsburgh needed to change would be repeated. In 1959, the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Agency, a predecessor of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, sponsored what became the largest study of Pittsburgh's economy either before or since. With funding from the Ford Foundation, the economist Edgar Hoover was recruited to lead the study.

The four-year study's conclusions were unqualified: Pittsburgh's competitiveness in steel production had been draining away for decades. The report predicted regional employment in primary metals industries alone would decline from 110,000 workers in 1960 to 63,000 in 1985. That must have seemed as unbelievable at the time as it proved to be optimistic in retrospect.

The Hoover report was not a dismal outlook. It presaged the ways regions would compete in the future.

"The Pittsburgh region's future depends to such a major extent upon retaining and attracting highly qualified and professional and technical people and business enterprisers, who are in demand everywhere and who command a high standard of residential amenity and cultural and professional opportunities."

Entire sections of the 1964 report focused on advantages Pittsburgh could build upon, including a research and development infrastructure, along with education and human capital assets. Change was possible -- if Pittsburgh wanted to change.

When the Hoover report was concluded in 1964, Pittsburgh remained unprepared to hear its message. If anything, it was doubling down its reliance on steel. In 1963, U.S. Steel had just built the Duquesne Works' Dorothy Six blast furnace, the largest in the world.

Dorothy's reign was short-lived. In 1968, Nippon Steel blew a far larger blast furnace at a site located on Hiroshima Bay in Japan. It was, literally and figuratively, a distant headline, one whose implications Pittsburgh did not yet fully comprehend.

The ongoing decline was not obvious. Through the economic tumult of the 1970s, both employment and wages in Pittsburgh's manufacturing sector remained strong.

As Franco Harris caught a tipped football to start the Steelers' dynasty in December 1972, the region recorded merely 4.3 percent unemployment and over 300,000 manufacturing workers reported to work the following Monday. The region's economy fared better than much of the nation through the multiple recessions of the 1970s.

Employment in the region's heavy industries collapsed rapidly beginning in 1981. Dorothy Six went cold in 1984, along with most of the Duquesne Works. Pittsburgh's economic nadir came as the unemployment rate peaked over 18 percent, with more than 200,000 regional workers officially counted as unemployed.

• • •

With the loss of jobs, Pittsburgh suffered a loss of population on the scale of a diaspora. Younger workers were most likely to leave, and leave they did, extending Pittsburgh's trauma.

Rebuilding the region's workforce has taken a full generation. Today, Pittsburgh's workforce has one of the highest educational attainments in the nation and female labor force participation rates have caught up to what is typical across the nation. Pittsburgh is today more capable of adapting and changing than at any point over the last century.

No doubt there are ongoing economic challenges. The failed vision that steel would last forever was succeeded by an equally failed quest to find an industry that would fully "replace" steel.

It remains tempting to continue searching for with the "next" steel. But realize there might never again be an anchor industry -- not just in Pittsburgh, but anywhere -- that exists as long as steel reigned here. Economic stability in the future requires not just anticipating, but encouraging, continuous change.

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Christopher Briem is a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social and Urban Research (www.ucsur.pitt.edu).


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