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by Phil Yacuboski

While the unemployment rate for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area continues to fall, it still lags behind the rest of Pennsylvania and the nation, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

Unemployment stands at 5.1 percent in numbers released in March, falling three-tenths of a percentage point.

In May, the national unemployment rate dipped to 3.8 percent – its lowest rate since April of 2000.

So why is our area so far behind?

“It’s all based on the types of industries that are based in northeastern Pennsylvania,” said Steven Zellers, an analyst with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry. “For many, many years manufacturing and mining were the big reasons unemployment was low, but now that they are gone there are few industries replacing it.”

While the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Williamsport areas each have unemployment at 5.1 percent, it’s not the highest region in the state. Johnstown’s unemployment is at 5.3 percent with Erie next at 5 percent. State College and Lancaster have the region’s lowest unemployment rate, according to the state, at 3.4 percent.

Zellers, who has been watching unemployment numbers since 2010 in Pennsylvania, also said seasonably adjusted jobs rose to 265,000 in March.

“Any gain is a good thing,” he said. “And even though the unemployment number is higher than what the state is, the growth rate in the jobs is higher.”

Zellers said there is job sector growth across the state, which trickles into the northeast region.

“There are strengths,” he said, adding that the transportation and warehousing sectors of the economy have added a lot of jobs recently. “That’s helped.”

In the transportation sector, which also includes warehousing and utilities, growth in the northeast region is up 3.7 from this time in 2017.

“Across the state, that growth is less than 1 percent,” he said, “so you have a situation where that sector is growing in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area faster than it is across the rest of the state.”

Education and healthcare are also a growing sector, while retail saw some dips across the state.

“Healthcare will continue to grow because Pennsylvania is older than the rest of the nation and the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area is older that,” he said.

What will it take to grow even more?

While it’s a complicated answer, no matter who you ask or what economic package is developed, some argue transportation – not the sector, but physical job transportation – could help tremendously.

“The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Hazleton corridor in Pennsylvania has seen employment grow in recent years, but many low and middle-income residents who do not own cars have been unable to secure these jobs,” said Daneil Mazone, spokeswoman, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, which watches and analyzes unemployment numbers throughout the state.

She said the bank and the Scranton Area Community Foundation recently partnered to create an equitable transit council to talk about how the area can create an ‘equitable transportation system’ that benefits individuals and the economy.

“This includes the ability to get to work, medical appointments, school, stores and cultural events,” said Mazone, adding that they recently looked to which the public transit network in the region connects people to employment.

“The research found that for a 60-minute commute, the typical neighborhood can access only 12 percent of jobs that pay above the median wage and do not require a four-year college degree. These findings suggest that a lack of equitable transportation explains some of the challenge companies face in filling open positions.”