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Our region continues to rack up the accolades. Recently, The New York Times toured the Laurel Highlands and recounted the story of Fallingwater, a newly-nominated World Heritage site right in the heart of our region. And then there’s the newest top ten ranking from, a women’s lifestyle publication that ranks our region high for affordability. As usual, ours is one of the largest metros to make such a list, this time along with Charlotte, NC.
All of this positive coverage got me to thinking about the contradictory resurgence of “Rust Belt” rhetoric this year. I remember when Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale coined the term in 1984. According to the Dictionary of American History, Mondale criticized Republican president Ronald Reagan for “turning our great industrial Midwest and the industrial base of this country into a rust bowl,” borrowing the “Dust Bowl” idea from the 1930s. The media reframed the concept as “Rust Belt,” a geography that included parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois.
Way back then, more than 30 years ago the term might aptly have applied to our region. The year before Mondale’s remarks, in 1983, our metro unemployment rate topped out at 18 percent. In 1984, 50,000 people moved away, the peak of the Pittsburgh Diaspora that created today’s “Steelers Nation.” As a young reporter covering mill closings, protests and wrenching social change, I remember those stories all too well.
That was then, but what about now? To the extent that those of us who live here are asked about the state of our region over the next few months, I thought it might be helpful to offer a few talking points about today’s reality. They’re bolded below.
Today, more than 30 years after our region hit rock bottom, total employment in the 10 counties of Southwestern Pennsylvania is at an all-time high. It’s a fact that often surprises many of the people who live here, especially those who experience the distressed communities and one-time mill towns left behind by our region’s economic comeback. There is disparity, but there’s also opportunity not too far away.
Not only are more people working here than ever before, employers across our region are looking to hire even more workers. lists 28,000 open jobs in the Pittsburgh region. Some may say that these aren’t the “good jobs” we had in the 1970s, when there was a widespread belief that anyone with a high school degree could land a family-sustaining job in manufacturing. There is some truth to that; today’s jobs are different.  Healthcare and financial services have replaced manufacturing as the dominant employers, but it’s misleading to say that all the “good jobs” have gone away.
Look a little deeper into the data of our recent Inflection Point report and you will find that more than two-thirds (68 percent) of the jobs listed on are in high-demand occupations and, with the exception of Office and Administrative Support, are in higher-than-living wage categories, paying more than $31,200 per year. 
Manufacturing remains a solid and steady contributor to our regional economy. We’re home to 2,800 manufacturers in such industries as metals, chemicals, machinery and electrical equipment. Last year, manufacturing led all sectors in our region with 63 of 275 investment deals, according to the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance. Because of the impact of technology these business deals didn’t create the number of jobs they might once have, but manufacturing still supports a robust supply chain that ripples positively throughout our region. To land a “good” job in an ever-more technology-driven industry, a worker may need some training beyond high school, although probably not a four-year degree.
ATI and United States Steel have invested billions in their facilities up and down our three rivers. Alcoa and General Electric are pushing the edge of next generation manufacturing by investing tens of millions in additive manufacturing research centers in Westmoreland and Allegheny Counties, respectively. And, in what may be the biggest bet on our future in my memory – and I’ve lived here 34 years this month – Shell Chemical is making a multi-billion dollar investment in a state of the art petrochemical facility in Beaver County.
Add to all of this investment the challenge presented by our demographics – a projected 340,000 jobs to fill over the next 10 years due to Baby Boomer retirements and new job creation – and there is significant opportunity here today and on the way. No longer is our region’s biggest challenge creating enough jobs to put everybody back to work, the challenge for the next generation is preparing enough people to fill the jobs that are available today and that will be opening up in the years to come.
Maybe that’s what bugs me the most about the term, “Rust Belt.” It was a synonym for despair. I moved here at a time when that term rang true, when a region with a broken economy seemed to have few options. But the 1980s never broke our spirit. People came together, picked up the pieces, and created a diverse, 21st economy with plenty of potential. 
“Rust Belt” fails to convey the reality of our region today. We are offering opportunity to people with the right skills, with more opportunity to come. Our challenge is to make sure all of our neighbors can get the skills they need to take advantage of it – and that the rest of the world knows about it.
Our Region’s Business and the Rio Olympics
Loyal viewers of “Our Region's Business” may be surprised to find track and field events and swimming in our usual timeslot the next three Sunday mornings. That’s because NBC is preempting for the Rio Olympics the weekly business public affairs program the Allegheny Conference co-produces with WPXI-TV. 
Since our region’s business never really stops no matter what’s happening in the southern hemisphere, we’ll be posting fresh content each week on our YouTube channel. Watch the web-only, on demand interview below on the soaring demand for mechanics and technicians in our region’s automotive industry shot on location at the Pittsburgh International Race Complex in Beaver County. We’ll return to the air at 11:00 a.m., Sunday, August 28th on Channel 11, WPXI-TV.
Thanks, as always, for your commitment to our region and for helping to spread the good word (and for removing “Rust Belt” from your vocabulary -- unless you’re talking history).
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