Sunday, April 18, 2010

An Idling Economy

New data on the number of jobs in March suggest that the Pittsburgh Region’s economy is still traveling in the slow lane, while some other regions have started to accelerate on the road to recovery. After a significant dip from January to February, jobs increased here in March by almost 10,000, but that's not really good news -- jobs always increase in March due to seasonal factors. Although 10,000 jobs is a lot, that was fairly typical of the seasonal increase in jobs we experience in most years between February and March. And experiencing a typical seasonal change means that there is little sign of a strong recovery pushing through.

In fact, for five straight months, the number of jobs here has been consistently between 34,000 and 37,000 lower than in the same month two years earlier (before the effects of the national recession began to kick in). It now seems clear that the small bit of non-seasonal job growth that appeared in a couple of those months was more likely random variation than any true indication that a significant recovery was getting underway, since the job gains one month disappeared the following month. Similarly, the job losses in other months, such as February, also seem to be just temporary fluctuations.

Compared to the rest of the country, our performance over the past few months has been about average. The country as a whole is also still idling in terms of job creation. We’re doing a little worse than average on private sector jobs, however – our economy is being disproportionately supported by growth in government jobs. A number of major regions have started to see more significant acceleration in private sector job creation than we have.

Although our overall 34,000-37,000 job loss isn’t improving the way we’d like, it’s still the envy of most other major regions. In percentage terms, we’re 3.1% below where we were 2 years ago, while 36 of the top 40 regions lost a bigger share of their jobs during that period. So even if other regions start growing significantly faster than we do, it will take them a long time just to get back to the lower level of losses that we’ve experienced.

Nonetheless, we have to be concerned about how to get job creation underway here if we’re going to reduce the unemployment rate, which was almost 10% in February. Some of our industry sectors are doing better than other regions, while others are doing worse. For example, we had over 2,000 more construction jobs here in March than in January, the largest increase of any region that reports construction jobs separately. Conversely, we were one of only 5 of the top 40 regions to actually lose jobs in the healthcare and social assistance sector between January and March. Although the loss was relatively small (100 jobs), other regions added hundreds or even thousands of jobs in healthcare over the past few months, which has helped offset losses they’ve experienced in other sectors. What was at one point our only growing sector has now also fallen into the loss side of the ledger.

Our biggest focus needs to be on manufacturing, since over the past two years, our region has lost twice as many manufacturing jobs as in any other sector, and 40% of all the jobs we lost in the past two years were in the manufacturing sector. Moreover, the loss of high wage jobs in manufacturing has likely contributed to job losses and slow recovery in other sectors. Here, March brought a little good news – after 20 straight months of job losses in manufacturing, the preliminary data suggest that we added 200 manufacturing jobs between January and March, while 14 of the top 40 regions lost manufacturing jobs during that period. However, that 200 jobs is only 1% of the 13,900 manufacturing jobs we’ve lost in the past two years, so we have a long way to go to rebuild our manufacturing base.


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