In the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated the gridiron, winning four Super Bowls in five years. But even the Steel Curtain defense couldn’t protect the city against the looming steel collapse.
By 1983 Steel City was in free fall. Pittsburgh’s unemployment rate hit a staggering 17.1 percent. More than 200,000 people in the region found themselves out of work. Its population was hemorrhaging, losing more than 4,000 people a month.
Area leaders responded with denial and people held out hope the steel mills would reopen, says Bill Flanagan, executive vice president of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a private-public organization that has helped drive Pittsburgh’s transformation from a mill town to a tech hub.
“The mills would lay people off and bring people back, and that had been going on for hundreds of years,” Flanagan says.
But reality set in once mill owners began demolishing plants and selling the steel for scrap.
“That’s when people began to get religion and understand that the economy we had before was not going to come back,” he says.
Though it took decades for Pittsburgh to regain its footing, the city was open to change, albeit forced change, and had the ingredients and regional resources that would soon be used to diversify and turn the city into the vibrant economy it is today.
At a recent speech at Carnegie Mellon University, David Chavern, COO at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said, “Fretting over the loss of the kinds of factory jobs our parents and their parents held will not bring those jobs back. Instead, we need to win the jobs of the future.”
Creating the jobs of the future
Pittsburgh native Rich Lunak is part of that revival, helping to support future job growth as president and CEO of local startup investment firm Innovation Works.
“There are a lot of tremendous assets in [Pittsburgh]: world class research universities, federal laboratories, a corporate community, great way of life and cost of living. It’s an exciting place to be,” he says.
But the future didn’t always looks so bright for Lunak, who recalls graduating from high school in the early 1980s, when three-quarters of his suburban neighborhood was unemployed. Lunak’s father, aunts and uncles were among those in search of work.
That’s part of the reason Lunak’s father thought he was unwise to leave a good job in the automation division at Westinghouse, which he landed after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University. But shortly into his career, the tech-enthusiast jumped ship to work for a three-person startup.
Lunak says his father “had envisioned me retiring with my 50-year service watch from a larger company. But looking back it’s clear to me that job security is not based on who you work for, but what kind of marketable skill set you have.”