Fayette County employment increased in 2014 as several major area employers expanded operations and economic development organizations intensified workforce training efforts.
Business and economic development leaders said strides were made in 2014 to progress the business climate but caution that needed improvements remain.
In an effort to expand its operations, Boeing Co. announced in November that it would add up to 168 new jobs over the next three years to double the number of employees at its 65,000-square-foot facility in the Fayette Business Park near Smithfield.
The announcement came on the heals of Gerome Manufacturing Co. celebrating the opening of a $9 million, 150,000-square-foot plant in Fayette Business Park to replace its previous facilities in North Union Township, a move that would allow Gerome increased production and the facilitation of additional hiring.
“All the indications that we’ve gotten is that industry is in an upswing in Fayette County,” said Bob Shark, executive director of Fay-Penn Economic Development Council. “Boeing has been one of the larger players for hiring and potential hiring.”
The county unemployment rate hit a seven-year low at 5.6 percent in October before ending the year at 5.9 percent, compared to the previous year rate of 7.6 percent. Contributing to the rate decrease was 1,000 additional employed residents.
“It’s the best indicator from a jobs perspective of how the economy is doing,” said Shark. “But we still have one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Even though we’ve gone down, we are still not at the level of the state or the national rates.”
Shark said balancing the growth was an announcement from Chevron Corp. in January that as many as 162 employees at its Smithfield and Moon Township facilities would be affected by an organizational restructuring in April that could see substantial layoffs.
“In terms of Marcellus activity, there was Chevron’s layoffs that had an impact in the region,” said Shark. “There was not much downturn in terms of the Marcellus industry (last year). Gas prices have stabilized, so hopefully we’ve seen the worst of that.”
In August, area officials tied increased Marcellus shale activity and a healthy tourism climate to several hotel developments in the county that would improve the area’s hospitality industry and add jobs.
Construction began on a 119-room Hilton Garden Inn in South Union Township soon after the opening of an 80-room Comfort Suites a short distance away. An 88-room Holiday Inn Express is planned in South Union Township, as is a 54-room Cobblestone Hotel and Suites in Connellsville. Last year, a Pittsburgh hospitality company purchased the 178-room Holiday Inn in South Union Township, rebranding it a Park Inn by Radisson and beginning work on substantial renovations.
The South Union hotel developments occurred alongside a retail boom that brought new stores, the beginning stages of redevelopment at Cherry Tree Square and the commencement of the final stage of Fayette Crossing.
“There’s been a stronger push towards retail. I almost see Uniontown becoming a retail hub, like Washington or Greensburg,” said Muriel Nuttall, executive director of the Fayette Chamber of Commerce. “(Business owners) are excited about a different level of business they haven’t seen in a while.”
Nuttall said the Marcellus shale industry has breathed new life into county, and that current road improvement projects along Route 40 and Route 21 will enhance accessibility to and from major retail developments.
“When the Marcellus industry came in, suddenly Fayette County showed up on maps,” she said. “We became very noticeable as a place that businesses could come and set up shop and be successful.”
Over the last year, according to Shark, Fay-Penn has received inquires for its services from businesses at an extraordinary pace.
“We’ve drawn interest from larger employers down to start ups,” he said. “There’s not really one business sector that’s predominant. It’s a variety of different sectors.”
Economic development officials said one of the largest barriers that businesses in Fayette County have faced is an underdeveloped workforce, and Fay-Penn and the chamber, along with the Westmoreland-Fayette Workforce Investment Board, took strides in 2014 to remedy the problem.
The three organizations created the Fayette Business Education Partnership to address the employment needs of businesses and to raise awareness in local schools of the skills students need to obtain jobs upon graduating.
“I had businesses coming to me saying, ‘the most difficult part of my business is not being able to find and keep qualified employees,’” said Nuttall.
The partnership worked with businesses and area school districts to create programs to get students active in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) education and interested in exploring career opportunities.
“There has been an amazing response from the business community. They have a vested interest because they need the quality employees,” Nuttall said.
“Fayette County has an employment problem. At any given time there can be 500 open jobs in the county. We’re working to get hard information as to why those jobs are open — is it a skills gap, or laziness or miscommunication between employers and potential employees?”
Shark said with a growing manufacturing sector, Fayette County residents looking for work need prepped in the skills required for manufacturing labor, and that manufacturing companies need to constantly increase productivity to ensure jobs are available.
“With manufacturing, in terms of job creation, you’re fighting against the current,” he said. “Companies are looking to become more efficient to where they need fewer workers to perform the job.
“It’s great that we’ve increased our manufacturing base recently, but as we see low-end manufacturing jobs go away, we have to constantly be reinventing the wheel to keep our heads above water in terms of jobs.”
Fayette Business Park in Georges Township, one of three business parks operated by Fay-Penn, has nearly reached its maximum occupancy, Shark said.
Fay-Penn has planned to develop land at the Dunbar Township Business Park and the University Business Park in North Union Township by readying sites that will attract businesses from outside the county.