Protesters rally outside the CareerLink Pittsburgh Building in January, seeking better services from the state. Unemployment in Pennsylvania has swelled in the last year as people return to the workforce.
By Daniel Moore / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Last year, something remarkable happened to the Pittsburgh region’s workforce: As much of the country saw jobless rates decline, unemployment here swelled with roughly 12,100 more people looking for work.
While that may not sound like good news, the forces driving higher unemployment appear to be positive. More of the people who had given up on finding a job started sending out resumes again, according to a Post-Gazette analysis of labor data.
It’s a trend that workforce officials have noticed. This year, those charged with linking unemployed people with jobs will confront challenging questions: Who are these people who are feeling optimistic about the economy? Are they qualified for the available jobs? Are these the jobs they want?
The crowded labor force heightens a workforce problem that has nagged at the region for years as Pittsburgh transitions away from the industrial-based economy that sustained it for decades.
Though the region has been effective in embracing health care, education and technology, government-supported workforce agencies that help connect job-seekers with employment are still struggling to reach everyone.
This year, the Pittsburgh region’s workforce agency — formerly known as the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board — is changing its tune. Now called Partner4Work, the agency launched a campaign to promote a less bureaucratic, more compassionate message for the 40,000 people who, according to agency estimates, are unemployed or underemployed in the region.
“We can talk at such a high level about this, but it really is about one person at a time, meeting people where they are and doing whatever you can for that person,” said chief executive officer Stefani Pashman at Partner4Work’s launch event last month at the Roberto Clemente Museum in Lawrenceville.
PG graphic: A more optimistic workforce (Click image for larger version)
She later told the crowd of employers, education leaders and government officials, “These are real people, and we need to learn who they are and find them.”
A growing workforce
The urgency is due in part to a trend unique to this region.
Pennsylvania is the only state to have seen so many new entrants to the labor force in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While Oklahoma experienced a similar increase in joblessness, data show that was a result of layoffs.
The government counts people as part of the labor force when they have taken specific actions to look for work within the prior four weeks — meaning the labor force can shrink when people are discouraged and swell when they are hopeful.
Across Pennsylvania, employment in the commonwealth grew slightly in 2016. But the ranks of unemployed grew by 70,000 — a 20 percent increase. The same trend was seen in Pittsburgh’s numbers.
Partner4Work estimates about half of the job seekers have no more than a high school education, while 15 percent have bachelor’s degrees or higher levels of education. A quarter of them are older than 55. About 39 percent are minorities, and 6 percent have a criminal background.
Large economic trends — such as new technology requiring a reorganization of an industry or a long decline in demand of a product — are likely behind some of the unemployment seen around Pittsburgh, said Keith Bailey, director of the Center for Workforce Information and Analysis at the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry.
In particular, state data show the mining industry cut 20 percent of its positions as coal struggles to find buyers.
The state gives regional workforce boards flexibility, Mr. Bailey said, while encouraging them to embrace training and apprenticeships. The boards are, by design, composed of mostly employers.
“It is our belief that works well, especially in the southwest part of the state, which has very vocal employers,” he said.
For job-seekers, the board funds career training programs and job search help, including the PA Careerlink offices in Downtown and Forest Hills. For employers, it offers a pool of pre-screened labor, free consulting services, and funding for on-the-job training programs.
Each year, it connects more than 1,700 adults to job opportunities.
About 65 percent of regional job advertisements ask for at least a bachelor’s degree, Partner4Work found, while only 15 percent of unemployed people have that.
Business groups have acknowledged a disconnect, too. Last May, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development predicted a shortfall of 80,000 workers in the Pittsburgh region by 2025. According to its study, employers need to retool their expectations for new hires amid a wave of baby boomer retirements and as technology disrupts the skills needed for certain jobs.
Sharing with grassroots groups
As part of its campaign, Partners4Work has been trying “to get more unusual partners to the table,” Ms. Pashman said.
When Bridgeway Capital bought a massive structure at 7800 Susquehanna St. in 2013, the nonprofit had a vision to bring fresh commercial activity to a blighted corner of Homewood. It rehabbed the space, attracting small manufacturing, artists and groups that provide training.
But even as the former Westinghouse facility began to fill with tenants, the surrounding community seemed unaware of the opportunities.
“We’re learning that proximity alone is not enough,” said Matt Madia, chief strategy and development officer for the nonprofit fund whose mission is to provide capital to entrepreneurs and small businesses in Western Pennsylvania.
“A more thoughtful effort is needed to connect open positions with the people who need them.”
Another step was needed. Bridgeway had not worked much with the workforce board before, Mr. Madia said, but knew it could offer an untapped pool of labor and expertise.
Ms. Pashman said the agency had connections with many of the building’s tenants, like the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, but needed to meet more. With the building now about 75 percent full, it’s becoming easier to align jobs with workers, she said.
Similar stories are taking place throughout the city, as the agency leans on neighborhood groups to be its eyes and ears. Neighborhood groups look to the agency for its network of employers and training providers.
Partner4Work sees roughly 100 job-seekers a month referred by smaller workforce development agencies around Pittsburgh, according to Ms. Pashman.
One of those neighborhood groups is the Eastside Neighborhood Employment Center. “We have a wide variety of people who come in the door,” said Patrick Shannon, an employment coordinator with the nonprofit, based in Garfield, which provides resume and interview help, as well as financial and budgeting advice.
Mr. Shannon recalled helping people who have been released from prison and others at risk for long-term unemployment. “They are looking to get back into the workforce,” he said.
Ms. Pashman said underemployment as an issue as well, as people can’t find full-time work that uses their degrees or credentials.
“When I take an Uber, every one of those drivers has a story about why they don’t have stable employment, and I can’t tell you how many of them I’ve given my card to.”
Daniel Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.
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