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Q&A: Randy Dearth on How Pittsburgh Did It

If Pittsburgh can do it, so can Detroit.

That is one takeaway I got from when I recently talked to Randy Dearth, one of the very involved business owners and volunteers who are putting new muscle behind this revitalized city.

Just like Detroit, Pittsburgh had massively high unemployment rates (18.8 percent at one time). It had a failing industry (steel). And it had some of the worst media relations out there – even people who were from there wrote nasty articles about the city. One writer called it "hell with the lid off."

These days, Pittsburgh serves as a model for a city in renaissance. It's gone green. It has lotsa new industries. In fact, some say the city is in its third renaissance – a sign that even an old doggie can learn new tricks. Part of the reason I wanted to talk to Dearth is the city's impressive campaign to retain its college graduates as well as draw young, educated workers to the city.

It took Pittsburgh 30 years to get it right. How long will it take in Detroit?

Background: Dearth is CEO of Lanxess Corporation and chair of the Workplace Committee of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. The Conference, according to its Web site, “works in collaboration with public and private sector partners to stimulate economic growth and enhance the quality of life in southwestern Pennsylvania. The Conference is a private sector leadership organization with over 300 Regional Investors. Regional Investors – all heads of our region's employers – provide civic leadership to execute a focused agenda for regional improvement.”

Since the G-20 held in Pittsburgh last year, other mid-size cities like Kansas City, Nashville, Louisville, Cincinnati and Mobile have sent delegates to Pittsburgh to see how it's done. In fact, the Conference's Dennis Yablonsky spoke about the city's success at the Detroit Regional Chamber this year. (Here's a story about it in Crain's Detroit.)

The group launched ImaginePittsburgh, a regional jobs aggregator, to advertise its 22,000 open jobs (more than 10,000 of those positions listing a pay level of more than $60,000 per year). Yes, real jobs. The Allegheny Conference on Community Development estimates that in the first six months of 2010 alone, 109 companies have announced plans to add over 6,000 jobs in the Pittsburgh region.

To educate local students about the reasons to stay in Pittsburgh, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development partnered with the Penguins hockey team to add another special pre-season hockey game in September as a large networking fair. The Penguins and the Allegheny Conference gave away 8,000 tickets to students from post-secondary schools in three states so they can network with local PA companies who are hiring before the game.

Enough out of me…

Q: Why did you need to advertise your job needs?

A: We're going through this renaissance where we've got a huge burst of hiring in our financial center. We have world class hospital here and they need employees. When you look at our demographic here in Pittsburgh, we do have an aging population. A lot of the company's managers probably will be retired in five years, so that's a concern. There was a perception among young people that you have to leave (to find opportunity). But we as business leaders see a huge opportunity coming up. We want students to know we are there to help them find what careers will be there. We will help you find the tools and the skills you need.

Q: So there is a synergy among the business community? How has that helped?

A: The Conference is made up of CEOs who have come together to make things move forward in a positive way. We have chosen areas where we feel the city needs development. We've carved out three areas that we're focusing on. How do we educate people who need the jobs? We need an accessible workforce. Secondly, we need a diverse workforce. And third, we need to partner with our schools. We need to help them better understand how to develop the talent, educate their students on what opportunities we see growing in our region. … It really requires the support of the business community. There are financial obligations to do this and you need to have the support to make it happen. … When I hold one of my workplace committee meetings, so many people are excited. It's exhilarating. I'm actually from Ohio…I'm a transplant to Pittsburgh. My team is a mix of both, those who grew up here and those who have moved here and are surprised and pleased to be here and raise a family.

Q: Why is there a dearth of young people at the moment?

A: It's perception. Parents might feel there are no opportunities here, and they expect their students to leave. We've got to get to those pockets of people who think there's nothing here. People always poo-poo their own city. (The solution) goes back to the business community getting behind it. We have to get it. We have to be the driving force out there. You have to have a group of CEOs who want to make a difference and do what they can as a collective group.

Q: Do you have support from the local politicians?

A: The politicians have come to us to ask us what our opinion is and what impact their legislation would have on us. We weigh in on taxes, jobs, transportation issues – and that help us create more business here or hinder us in terms of growing. So there's a lot of respect and partnership with the politicians. As we get out there more and more, people are starting to understand who we are. … It really does work. Pittsburgh is a big town, but at its roots is a small town. Many of us serve on the same boards or organizations and you tend to get to know who is the key players in driving this forward.

Q: Any words of advice for Detroit?

A: Be patient. This didn't happen overnight. I've been involved in the Conference for five years, but I can tell you some of these issues have been doing on for decades. We know what we can change and what we cannot. But we're running on all engines now. Truly, look at other models out there; we as Pittsburgh look at models all the time, like Minneapolis/St Paul, which has attracted the diverse workplace pool. Benchmark against what has worked at other cities. Take apart what isn't working for you and find out why not.

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