Pittsburgh unemployment up as more job hunts begin | TribLIVE.com
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February was a lackluster month for Western Pennsylvania employment, as manufacturers and energy companies continued to struggle.

Employers in the seven-county Pittsburgh area added just 600 workers to payrolls, and the unemployment rate ticked up to 5 percent, from 4.8 percent in January, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry reported Tuesday.

The increase in the unemployment rate was because more people began looking for jobs. People who are not actively looking for work are not counted as unemployed.

There’s no reason for immediate concern over the rate’s February bump, but more increases in the months ahead could signal trouble, said Kurt Rankin, a PNC economist.

“If this was the start of a trend, I would start to worry about the direction and wonder whether Pittsburgh was starting to backslide this year instead of holding its own,” Rankin said.

Struggles in manufacturing and the natural gas industry have weighed down Pittsburgh’s economy for the past year. The job market last month was barely ahead of where it was a year ago, with payrolls expanding by 1,600 from February 2015 and shaving just one-tenth of a percentage point from the unemployment rate.

The region’s steel makers and natural gas companies have laid off thousands of workers, and economists doubt relief is coming this year.

Steel makers have struggled to compete with cheap imports and have been hampered by a strong dollar, which has made their goods more expensive to sell overseas. Meanwhile, low oil and natural gas prices have crimped revenue for energy producers.

Pittsburgh manufacturers have cut 3,300 employees from payrolls since last year, and the mining and logging sector, which includes natural gas companies, has shed 1,900 jobs.

February’s modest gain was entirely from the service sector, but there were signs of sluggishness there.

Particularly concerning is stagnation in the health care and education industries, which account for more than one-fifth of the region’s employment, said Guhan Venkatu, an economist at the Pittsburgh office of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

Colleges and universities that reopened for the semester brought back 2,900 workers in February after cutting 2,200 the month before. Over the past year, employment in higher education has grown by a tepid 1.7 percent. Hospitals cut 200 workers in February, and employment was down by 100 from February 2015.

“The thing that concerns me is just kind of the flat line that you see,” Venkatu said. “There’s been very little employment growth.”

The U.S. employment figures for March are set to be released Friday.

Chris Fleisher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7854 or [email protected].

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