Editor’s note: This is the last of a three-part series.

Bill Flanagan offered some sobering perspective in relation to Southwestern Pennsylvania’s battle with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re still a long way from getting back to normal or what we would perceive to be the healthy kind of economy we enjoyed last year,” the chief corporate relations officer for the Allegheny Conference On Community Development said.

In discussing “What’s Now and What’s Next for Our Regional Economy,” the subject of a virtual program presented by the South West Communities Chamber of Commerce, Flanagan reported the Pittsburgh area’s unemployment rate stood at 8.2% in September, compared with 4.5% before the pandemic

“Sort of the easy jobs to get back, we’ve gotten back,” he said about recovering during the pandemic. “A lot of what’s been driving the employment improvement has been people returning to work, returning to their jobs. But now there’s this specter of permanent unemployment arising, that people just won’t have the skills or the ability to move into the jobs that are being created and will be created.”

Partially as a result of the situation created by the pandemic, many of the opportunities are related to digital access and technological capability.

“We know that if you have connectivity, you’re better able to work. You’re better able to learn. You can still go to school,” Flanagan said. “And if you’re not, you are at a huge disadvantage right now.

“This especially plays out among the have-nots in the region,” he added. “Obviously, there was disparity here before all of this. And the thing about a crisis like this, any type of a recession, is that the disparity tends to get worse.”

Another factor for consideration involves demographics.

“We have an older population. We were losing population again the last couple of years, after gaining after the Great Recession, at the beginning of the decade,” Flanagan said. “So clearly our population dynamics get in the way of our recovery, as well.”

In October, his organization released “Pittsburgh Region Recovery Framework,” a document prepared in conjunction with more than 300 private- and public-sector partners to identify pandemic-induced disruptions and areas of opportunity. The report identifies “six key areas that we need to focus on to ensure a just and equitable recovery and long-term competitive positioning of the region.”

Those areas are as follows:

  • Enhance competitiveness, tax and regulatory policies, and infrastructure investments that are essential to retain existing employers and attract new ones;
  • Accelerate inclusive economic growth in innovation and research-driven sectors likely to expand the fastest in the near term;
  • Prevent local government insolvency and propel recovery investments in underfunded communities;
  • Establish a regional “reskilling” strategy to transition at-risk workers from structurally challenged industries and businesses;
  • Develop relief resources for small- and mid-sized businesses, to mitigate the impacts of economic shutdowns and facilitate a digital transformation to prevent the permanent closure of viable employers;
  • Ensure the survival of critical institutions and retention of the distinctive amenities that contribute to the quality of life and attractiveness of the region.

“Arts and culture, those organizations have been hammered by what’s been happening here. Think about concerts. Think about sports teams. Think about everything that makes our region such a great place to live,” Flanagan said. “It’s a huge competitive advantage if we can preserve that.”

Regarding the development of resources for businesses, he cited organizations such as the one hosting his program.

“A really important role for chambers of commerce to play across the region is to understand what their business members need and to make sure that they’re getting the resources and the information that they need to be able to find their way through this and come out on the other side,” he said.

As part of his presentation, he showed a graph displaying employment numbers in the region since 1970, including the plotting of a trend line

“For all the ups and downs of all those recessions over the past 50 years, that green line just keeps going up,” Flanagan said. “And we really feel that, despite all the challenges that we’re experiencing here in our region right now, if we come together as we have in the past through all those other downturns, we can build every bit as bright a future and we can keep that green line moving in the right direction.”

Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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