The habit of collaboration in Pittsburgh

The Allegheny Conference was launched in the 1940s to improve the air quality of the then “Smoky City.” This private-public partnership set the stage for what is now one of Pittsburgh’s greatest strengths.

“One of the great things about Pittsburgh, and particularly the Pittsburgh business community, is that there is a great deal of, what I would call, useful collaboration and coordination — a lot of cross connections and mutual aiding,” says J. Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

Not only did McMahon mention this habit of collaboration several times during my interview for this month’s cover story, but it also comes into play with the Uniquely Pittsburgh feature. The Duquesne Incline was in danger of closing forever in the 1960s until the community and Port Authority of Allegheny County came together.

The results are easy to see

So, why is Pittsburgh so successful in this area of collaboration and economic development when other cities have struggled? There’s no straightforward answer to that. (But perhaps part of it comes from the fact that the city faced its biggest crisis years before the Great Recession that affected the entire nation. Maybe Pittsburgh is just further along the curve.)

It’s easy, however, to see the results.

Not only is Pittsburgh being rediscovered by America, it has merged information technology and advanced manufacturing to create new opportunities. Pittsburgh has moved from a reliance on the steel industry to a diverse mix of energy, business management, health care, research and development, manufacturing, education and finance.

For example, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Pittsburgh’s unemployment rate (not seasonally adjusted) was just 5.7 percent in April of this year. Comparatively, in the same month, the rate was 8.5 percent in Cleveland, Ohio, 6.8 percent in Philadelphia, 5.9 percent in the U.S. and 5.1 percent in Pennsylvania.

Brimming with brainpower

Another interesting component is Pittsburgh’s talent pipeline. An article by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation explores Pittsburgh’s comeback.

“According to IRS tax return data since 1996, the region’s out-migration rate has never been higher than 60 percent of a typical metropolitan area,” the article states.

“Pittsburgh’s out-migration rate has declined even further since 2008 and the region is now enjoying a small net gain in residents due to increasing inward migration. In recent years, Pittsburgh has not had a problem with high out- migration; rather, its in-migration rate has lagged other metropolitan areas.

“Pittsburgh’s new challenge is not in stemming an outflow of residents, but in improving its performance in attracting new ones.”

In fact, according to the article, half of the region’s residents ages 25-44 have at least a two-year degree. That’s the seventh highest of the nation’s 51 largest metropolitan areas.

I guess that means as new problems crop up, like attracting the right talent, those communication networks, which started so many years ago, will keep right on humming.