Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: Energy sector fuels jobs surge in Western Pennsylvania

By Timothy Puko and Rick Wills

The Marcellus shale gas rush has fueled much of the recent growth in Washington County.

Two Pittsburgh-area counties are showing some of the fastest job growth in the country, and the energy sector is a big contributor, according to federal statistics released on Friday and analysis from local experts.

Washington County ranked third nationally and Butler County was sixth in job growth between March 2010 and March 2011, according to a quarterly employment report on the country’s biggest counties from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They now have about 80,200 jobs each with growth of more than 4.2 percent. The national average was 1.3 percent growth.

The Marcellus shale gas rush has fueled much of the recent growth in Washington County. Westinghouse Electric Co.’s move from Monroeville to a Cranberry nuclear energy complex, where it has 5,000 employees, has caused most of Butler County’s growth, officials said. All of that fits into long-term trends, with new infrastructure and construction, good schools and interstate highway access, and the region’s only population growth creating booming economies, local economists said.

“Marcellus shale is really icing on the cake in terms of employment, jobs and income generation here in the county,” said John Gregor, an economics professor at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington. “We’re geographically in the center. We’re half an hour from the airport. We’ve got two interstates crossing here. If (drillers) don’t locate a significant part of (their) operations here, (they’re) stupid. And they’re not stupid.”

Washington County gained about 750 workers in the natural resources and mining sector over the year, bureau figures show. It grew even more in professional services and business, adding 900 workers, and had smaller but still sizable upticks of several hundred workers in at least three other sectors.

Southpointe, the 610-acre office complex in Cecil, slowly but surely proved a big economic generator for the county more than a decade ago, becoming the corporate home to Mylan Inc. and Consol Energy Inc. The shale boom has increased its potential in recent years, filling it with several dozen companies connected with the drilling industry and helping support several expansions. Another 130,000 square feet of condominiums are under construction there, and several new office buildings are under consideration, said William Sember, operations director at the Washington County Authority, owner of the newest addition, Southpointe II.

“The whole Southpointe, one and two, are just booming,” Sember said.

All sectors are benefiting from drilling, whether it’s from Range Resources Corp. and Consol Energy paying to build new headquarters in Cecil or from legal and engineering firms opening new offices next door, officials said. Gregor had predicted that every new job in the drilling industry would lead to another 1.5 jobs in other sectors, but agrees with other research that said that two new jobs is more likely, he said.

“Everywhere you look, from the guy that’s selling tractors because the farmers are getting royalties, to hotels that are filled, truck drivers who are being trained and welders in small machine shops, a lot of that can be attributed to Marcellus shale development,” said Scott Fergus, the county’s director of administration. “I heard stories from my father and grandfather of what it was like here back in the original Rockefeller days of the oil boom. You get the feeling things are the same way now.”

The experience has been similar in Butler County. About $500 million worth of development — 10 projects in Cranberry alone — were approved or in development last year because of the Westinghouse move.

“There is a real boom here,” said Jen Bowers, 48, who works in the Cranberry Commons shopping mall on Route 228. “This shopping center is constantly filled. People are buying things. Lots of people from Westinghouse are building homes in this area, so even the construction business seems like it’s probably doing well. You really don’t hear about foreclosures around here.”

Nearly all of the five Pittsburgh-area counties that were studied fared better than the country at large, which had 1.3 percent job growth as it struggles to recover from the recession. Only Westmoreland County fared worse, with 1.1 percent job growth and weekly wages averaging $716, some of the lowest in the state. Part of that loss can be attributed to Westinghouse, which moved from Monroeville near the Allegheny-Westmoreland counties border, said Robert Strauss, an economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Westmoreland County resident.

“I’m lucky, very fortunate. Many of the people I went to school with — even engineering students — are having a really hard time finding jobs,” said Andy Iams, 23, of Monroeville, a mechanical engineer who started at Westinghouse in December. “I did not think Butler County would rank so high nationally for new jobs. That seems like something we should all be happy about.”

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