By Michael Roknick
Herald Business Editor
MERCER COUNTY —
Mercer County’s unemployment rate in March hit 6.3 percent, the lowest in nearly six years.
While the rate is preliminary and may be adjusted next month, it follows a continuing trend of declining unemployment among county residents. The rate hasn’t been this low since June 2008 when the rate was 6.3 percent, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry which released the figures.
For the first time in a long while the local jobless rate was below the national 6.7 percent rate. However, it continued to remain above the state’s 6 percent rate.
March’s county jobless figures nudged down just a hair from February’s 6.4 percent rate.
Over the past year the county’s jobless rate has fallen a full two percent. The county ranked 34th among the state’s 67 counties in terms of having the lowest unemployment rate.
Figures for March show the labor force and number of employed held steady at 54,300 and 50,900 respectively from February. The number of unemployed was down a slight 100 in March to stand at 3,400.
Although nobody is proclaiming boom times are here, there is an acknowledgment the county, like the rest of the nation, is ever so slowly digging out of the Great Recession.
It was at the end of summer in 2008 when the economy began to tank, noted Randy Seitz, chief executive officer of Penn-Northwest Development Corp., Mercer County’s lead economic development agency.
“Banks weren’t loaning, companies weren’t adding jobs and people weren’t spending,’’ he said of the period. “Consumer confidence was completely wiped out.’’
By 2013, though, Seitz said there were clear signals the economy was improving. Speculation of a doomsday tax restructuring didn’t materialize. Further, the rollout of Obamacare health insurance has been held off for a couple years.
“I think the phase we’re in now is consumer confidence is back,’’ Seitz said. “People are buying, and because people are buying companies have begun to expand.’’
Locally, Penn-Northwest launched its “Make it in Mercer County’’ campaign to attract new companies and get others already here to expand. The agency has averaged around 700 leads of businesses looking to locate or expand here in each of the past two years, Seitz noted.
Putting that into perspective, in any given year there are 2,500 company expansion projects of real merit on the board nationally. So far this year, 13 of those prospects conducted a local on-site visit of possible locations of where they could settle. There are good chances those visits will develop into a deal. In development terms, that’s a strong batting average, he added.
Another big plus for the county is that it has diversified over the past 30 years.
“We have a diversified employment base that supplies value to so many other sectors, it’s keeping us relevant,’’ Seitz said.
Rates for surrounding counties were:
• Butler, 5.2 percent
• Crawford, 6.1 percent
• Lawrence, 6.6 percent
• Venango, 6.4 percent