There's a lot of energy behind area's wage growth stats

Posted January 17, 2011

About six months ago, Washington and Butler counties were in the news as the only two Southwestern Pennsylvania counties that added population during the past decade.

The figures, produced by the U.S. Census Bureau, showed that from 2000 to 2009, Butler County added about 10,000 people, while Washington County gained nearly 5,000 residents in the decade.

News of the two counties arose again last week, when the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics released employment and wage information comparing 2010's second quarter against the comparable quarter for 2009 for the 326 largest counties across the U.S.

This time, Butler and Washington counties rose near the top among wage-gaining counties on a national basis.

While average weekly wages in large U.S. counties increased by $25, or 3 percent to $865 between the second quarter of 2009 and 2010, Butler registered a 5.8 percent increase in wages for the period, jumping to an average weekly wage of $767. The percentage increase ranked Butler County 10th among all counties in the country.

Washington County's rise in average weekly wages was almost as dramatic as Butler's, according to the data.

According to BLS, between the second quarter of 2009 and 2010, Washington County saw a 5 percent upward swing in wages from a year earlier, ending at a weekly average of $777. That put it in 21st place among the country's largest counties.

According to Kara Markley, regional economist for the BLS Mid-Atlantic office in Philadelphia, the bureau's focus is disseminating raw data for the counties. While it will provide a more detailed report with regard to all Pennsylvania counties within the next few weeks, she said BLS doesn't look for cause and effect relationships for swings in employment and wages.

It's safe to assume that the energy industry was responsible for much of the wage gain in both counties, although the case could be made for a diversified economy helping to play a role in Washington County's strong showing.

Over the past year, Westinghouse, which designs and builds nuclear power plants around the world, began moving several thousand highly paid workers to its new Cranberry campus in Butler County.

In Washington County, which began billing itself as the "Energy Capital of the East" last year, the growth of companies involved with the exploration and drilling of the Marcellus Shale for natural gas has created thousands of new jobs in the area. Southpointe alone now counts more than 50 energy-related companies, while other smaller drilling and supply companies have taken up residence in various locations within the county.

The rise in average wage here also came at a time when some prominent local manufacturers, including All-Clad and World Kitchen, ramped up hiring to meet growing demand for their products.

Another local contributor to the positive wage growth scene here is The Meadows Racetrack & Casino, which now employs about 1,700 people, up from about 500 just a few years ago.

However, the Meadows' addition of 500 employees for its table games operations will have to wait for the next BLS count. The bulk of those jobs came on line when The Meadows opened table games in early July.

Michael Bradwell is business editor for the Observer-Reporter. Copyright Observer Publishing Co.