QQ What is Pittsburgh Works? How and why did this come about?
ON. Pittsburgh Works is a coalition that believes in the importance of a strong and balanced local economy that encompasses and values all major industrial sectors including energy and manufacturing. We need jobs of all kinds for all kinds of our workers if we are to continue building our regional economy and have a strong and diversified future.
It really started as a casual conversation between some members of the Builders Guild, union leaders and building contractors’ associations, as well as some energy companies, Peoples and US Steel. Initially, we focused on refuting some of the false perceptions about our industries, many of which were on the environmental side. We felt we had to counter some of these things.
We are not environmental deniers. We want things to be done right. We want good air and water quality. Often times when you have renewable energy advocates all they want is solar and wind power, and they want this to be done now. But let’s be realistic. You don’t just flip a switch and walk to it. At least with current technologies, there are restrictions on sun and wind. So you still have to rely on the power grid, whether it’s coal or natural gas. There are also technologies like carbon capture that would not require the end of fossil fuel use to generate electricity. There is a place for all technologies. We try to balance this discussion. We don’t want to be controversial or controversial, but too often this whole story is not told.
We decided to move forward in November last year and did some quantitative research and focus groups to check health and see what people really believed. Even as of January this year, the economy was the main problem on people’s minds. At that time, unemployment was 3.5 to 4 percent. The second was crime. The environment was in third place. I was surprised it wasn’t all the way up or the top based on everything you read and hear in our area.
We asked: are you ready to sacrifice jobs to further improve the environment? The answer was no, but nobody wanted us to fall behind ecologically and it was clear that we should keep improving the environment. You said what we believe – that you can have both. You will never live in a world with no emissions or impact. The fact that humans exist will affect the environment.
We want the tech, healthcare, and academic industries to grow. Pittsburgh won’t grow and survive just with tech companies. If a city should know the folly of being dependent on an industry, we should be. What we really want to do is balance the conversation and provide accurate information, whether it be for the general public or for elected officials or the Foundation officials. We cannot control what they do with it.
QQ The Pittsburgh subway area and surrounding counties have the unusual problem of persistent population decline. Can Pittsburgh Works be part of the solution to stabilize our regional population by creating jobs and people?
ON. We also focus on restoring manufacturing. This is one area we are well suited to – bringing things back from countries that are not our friends. We want to bring together political leaders, citizens and other organizations to ensure that much of this restructuring gets to our region. It won’t happen if we just sit here and want it. We want to create an atmosphere that is conducive to growth in terms of corporate tax, permits and employee training.
We’re not saying we have to conquer the wild west – we believe in regulation and surveillance – but we want to create a friendlier business climate and opportunities for younger people to stay, not just those with four-year degrees. If you create these opportunities where people can have very solid middle class incomes – $ 80,000 to $ 100,000 a year with benefits – more people will stay. Some will leave, but you have a greater chance of attracting people from other areas.
We have a very attractive cost of living and it is a family friendly place with all the conveniences of a big city. We believe we can expand that population base and add more young people to the mix, but if you don’t get the chance, why should someone stay?
QQ How has COVID affected your plans and how have you adapted?
ON. Before the pandemic, our focus was on protecting our industries and highlighting their benefits. Of course, the pandemic was devastating, but it also opened some doors here that could be of great benefit not only to the region but also to the country in the long run.
If you look at our region, the tech companies want to be in the Strip District and Oakland, and that makes sense. But if you look at the old mill towns of Mon Valley, they won’t turn around because tech companies are going there. It is made. We have an abundance of open, available land. We have the energy. We have the workforce and the training programs. It’s a very natural fit. Hope for these communities will largely be directed to manufacturing and complementary industries. People have to accept this fact and take advantage of these opportunities. We all talk a lot about what we should do for these communities to get them back on an equal footing. Well, that’s how we do it.
QQ What are the barriers to achieving these goals and how can we overcome them together?
ON. Obstacles try to keep doing things the way we did them. Doing what we are talking about will not be easy. It will require collaboration between groups that are not used to working together. It will require the political will of some politicians to step out of a comfort zone. Here we are trying to play that role to get some of these different groups to have at least one conversation.
QQ Is the leadership of the region dynamic and far-sighted enough to achieve what you would like to see?
ON. I think it is. It’s like everything. When we are so caught up in our own philosophies, we lose sight of our common goals and interests. Where can we do things that are beneficial for everyone? We need to get out of thinking that there is only one way to do things – or worry about who gets credit. Let’s sit down and see what will best serve our region, and not just Pittsburgh or Allegheny counties, but the 10 to 12 county region as well. This is an interruption that needs to be resolved.
Better to try and fail than not to try. And right now, I don’t know that we are all trying so hard. We sit here and talk about the pandemic and the negative things, but at some point you have to realize that this will go away with time. We cannot afford to sit here paralyzed for the next year or more. We have to go forward.
For more information on Pittsburgh Works, please visit pghworks.com.