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Pittsburgh area unemployment ticks up

ptrjobs042915
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Truck driver Dan Knapp, 28, of the West End fuels up a truck at the W.J. Beitler Co. fueling station at the Esplen headquarters Tuesday, April 28, 2015. Knapp has worked for W.J. Beitler Co. for four years.

The Pittsburgh region’s job market remained stuck in neutral last month amid the general slowdown in the nation’s economy.

Employers in the seven-county region added 4,600 nonfarm jobs in March, an increase of just 0.4 percent that was largely related to seasonal hiring, the state Department of Labor & Industry reported Tuesday. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate rose a 10th of a percentage point to 5.3 percent.

Western Pennsylvania’s economy appears to have reached its limits for adding jobs and needs demand for goods and services here to pick up from outside the region in order to gain momentum, said Kurt Rankin, an economist at PNC Financial Services Group.

“Pittsburgh and its existing businesses seem to have given all they can,” he said. “There’s not much more we can squeeze out.”

The region’s job market paralleled the larger slowdown nationally, as winter weather, low oil prices and a strong dollar caused employers to add the fewest jobs in more than a year.

Many sectors that have been historically strong in Pittsburgh, such as health care and business services, showed signs of weakening. Health care and social assistance lost 900 workers in March, and business services declined by 100.

The region’s construction companies and the leisure and hospitality industry showed the biggest gains, as they entered the spring hiring season. The leisure sector added 3,600 workers in March and was up 3,500 from a year ago. Contractors ramping up for building projects added 2,800 workers last month.

Some trucking companies were hit by recent declines in the natural gas industry, where a glut of production is depressing prices and forcing gas companies to dial back drilling and slow demand for hauling services.

Jobs at transportation and warehousing companies were down by 600 last month and 1,300 from a year ago.

“It’s been a significant impact, particularly on the fracking side,” said Patrick Cozzens, president of Franklin Park-based Modern Transportation. “Water hauling is still staying stable but on the production side, on the fracking side, I would say across the board, rates are down 20 percent and driver counts are off as well.”

Modern Transportation is shifting some of those gas-industry drivers to other areas of business where the need for qualified drivers remains high, Cozzens said. He was unsure what the net impact had been to his 500-person workforce.

Last month was “status quo” for Esplen-based W.J. Beitler Co., said Quentin Beitler, the company’s president. The trucking and warehousing company plans to add about 10 employees to its 100-person workforce before June as it looks ahead to a busy summer.

“The hiring we’re looking to do is for anticipated growth,” Beitler said.

Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or [email protected].

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