Sunday, September 27, 2009

Some Reflections on Pittsburgh

As a lifelong Pittsburgh area resident, I was especially interested in the media coverage of a city that remains a curiosity to many who do not know it well. The NYT blog article Why Pittsburgh? attempts to answer the question on how Pittsburgh was selected for the recent G-20 Summit.
The White House has repeatedly cited the city’s transformation from a Rust Belt shell to one whose economy rebounded on the base of the health, education and perhaps technology industries. Granted, those employers have acted as a buffer against the higher unemployment rates experienced elsewhere during the current recession. And many have pointed out that Mr. Obama has become pals with the Rooneys, especially Dan Rooney, the owner of the Steelers and the new ambassador to Ireland. Pittsburgh also is situated in a conjoined region of swing states…
So while it’s nice to talk about the city’s transformation from a dirty steel town to a much cleaner town that has more white collar jobs, this ignores much of the pain that places like Pittsburgh have gone through and will continue to experience especially in this weak economy.

But overall, I can truthfully say that Pittsburgh has a lot of good things going for it and is a great place to live — especially for those who have a family and a job. This is verified not only by publications like
Places Rated Almanac but also by the many Pittsburgh sports celebrities who originally lived elsewhere but chose to stay in Pittsburgh after retiring despite being able to live just about anywhere.

More than anything else, I believe Pittsburgh gets its appeal from having just about everything that the largest cities have to offer but without some of their liabilities such as high crime and cost of living.

But although Pittsburgh is still called the Steel City by some, the loss of the steel industry in the 80s along with the loss of other manufacturers like Westinghouse to non-union locations dealt a crushing blow to its population numbers which have steadily declined with each census to this day. Our universities graduate lots of young workers into the economy but few stay here for lack of jobs. Forbes has often put Pittsburgh
at or near the bottom of their ratings for singles. And its population is the second oldest in the country which ensures that healthcare will remain one of the few vibrant industries here.

An interesting phenomenon is the large number of Pittsburgh sports fans one sees on TV who are cheering in the stands in surprising numbers for their teams’ away games. It almost doesn’t matter where in the country it is as long as the home team can’t sell out their games.
Pittsburgh Steeler fan clubs and bars exist around the nation and the world for their fans to make a mental escape back to Pittsburgh. So what gives? While there are some who just admire the Steelers and Penguins for their successes, I would guess that many if not most of these people are those who loved being in the ‘Burgh but had to move elsewhere to find a job.

So the question to be answered by those attending the recent G-20 Conference just held in Pittsburgh is what do we do for the so-called Rust Belt cities such as Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Baltimore, etc?

People in these places have been used to working blue collar jobs for generations to support their families. But once the manufacturing jobs left, the bottom fell out. Along with all of the beautiful places that Pittsburgh showed off to the visiting G-20 heads of state are the areas of urban blight they didn't see that never recovered from losing their factories and steel mills.

It is not realistic to expect all of these manufacturing jobs to return. But on the other hand, it is equally unrealistic to expect us to thrive as simply being a white collar and service economy. Service jobs are among the lowest paying ones. And as our present economy is showing all too well, the supply of white collar jobs is not inexhaustible. Simply sending more and more people to college may indeed be trading blue collar unemployment for possible white collar unemployment which is not a long term solution.

I think the lesson to be learned from the plight of Pittsburgh and the other Rust Belt cities is that we cannot have a healthy economy without at least some semblance of a manufacturing base here at home. It may be difficult to bring manufacturing of the existing products we buy back home from other lands. But there are many other goods we will need for our conversion to greener forms of energy along with the rebuilding of our infrastructure. For a start, we will need to make solar cells and wind turbines along with
fixing the power grid to deliver all of the resulting renewable energy to where it is needed.

President Obama has called a new energy agenda "absolutely critical to our economic future," and his stimulus package directs more than $40 billion toward that goal—the largest single infusion of government capital to the energy sector in US history, more than half of which will go to grid-related projects.
The number of well paying manufacturing jobs that can be created is significant and can’t come soon enough. I can only hope that someday in the not too distant future, Pittsburgh will not only be a great place to live, but also a great place to find a job!

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