State chief of Labor and Industry sees promising numbers in economic data

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When Julia Hearthway, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, considers the state's recovery from the Great Recession, she likes to look at six numbers.

Without all six of them, she said, you don't get a full picture.

The complete picture that emerges from those numbers isn't all good, but it also isn't as dire -- or as rosy -- as it could be when statistics are cherry-picked by people who just want to make a point, she said.

The key numbers that she considers are: the unemployment rate then and now; the number of jobs then and now; and the size of the labor force then and now. For Ms. Hearthway, who came into office with Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, the date she uses for "then" is January 2011, when the governor took office. Now is December 2012, which is the latest date available.

So how is the state doing?

The unemployment rate is about the same as it was before, falling from 8 percent in January 2011 to 7.9 percent in December 2012. The number of jobs has grown by nearly 200,000 to 5.75 million and the size of the workforce has grown by 159,000.

It's that growth in the labor force that Ms. Hearthway described in an interview Wednesday as the really exciting news because Pennsylvania is second in the country only to Texas for labor market growth in the past month.

To her that means that not only are Pennsylvanians looking for or getting work, but also that people are moving here. "The labor market is increasing because people are coming to Pennsylvania looking for jobs," she said.

A growing labor force, she said, is one of the surer signs of a healthy economy.

Another good sign for the state is the diversity of the economy.

Before the use of new technology created a boom in natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region, for instance, the mining sector was just 1 percent of the state's economy. On the other hand, cuts caused by the sequester -- automatic federal spending cuts that will be made unless Congress and the president work out a way to stop them -- shouldn't hurt Pennsylvania as much as they may hurt Virginia, for example, because Pennsylvania is much less dependent on federal money.

As a former prosecutor who came to her job from the attorney general's office, Ms. Hearthway said she likes hard data to make determinations. That desire for numbers is partially what is behind two new programs coming out of the Department of Labor and Industry.

One, which is already available, is Pennsylvania Career Coach, an Internet site at where job seekers can type in occupations and see the employment trends for that occupation, local schools that offer training, the wage range and current job openings.

Another website being developed for employers will show whether there are workers available. That site may help combat the notion that there is a skills gap in some areas.

The project was inspired in part by a situation in which Ms. Hearthway found employers in one region were complaining there weren't enough people with commercial drivers licenses. When the labor department researched the data, they found there were plenty of people with the licenses in the area. Instead, there were other reasons the jobs were proving tough to fill. Either they paid too little or the working conditions were problematic or the requirements of the job were out of line with the market.

In a conversation Wednesday, Ms. Hearthway cautioned against unrealistic expectations, such as the employer who wanted the state to train 50 workers when he only needed three so that he could have his pick for the job or the employers who demand much higher educational levels than the jobs actually require.

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Ann Belser: or 412-263-1699.


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