Homer City coal-fired power plant. Photo by Brian Cohen.

A grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) will help Catalyst Connection continue a partnership that could boost the area’s manufacturing industry and enable displaced coal workers to find new career opportunities.

Catalyst Connection, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that provides consulting and training services to small manufacturers in 12 southwestern PA counties, recently received $400,000 from the EDA’s Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership (IMCP) and Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) initiative. The grant comes a year after the EDA officially designated a 20-county region in southwestern PA and northern WV as the Greater Pittsburgh Metals Manufacturing Community (GPMCC). Along with Catalyst Connection, the GPMCC includes government, university and private partners dedicated to promoting long-term growth in regional manufacturing.

Catalyst Connection and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership of West Virginia (WV MEP) will lead the GPMCC, which includes the Pennsylvania Department of Economic Development, the Greene County Economic Development, the Johnstown, PA nonprofit JARI, West Virginia University (WVU) and the University of Pittsburgh.

Petra Mitchell, president and CEO of Catalyst Connection, says the grant serves as an important first step in moving forward on a 10-year plan to “grow existing manufacturers, attract new manufacturers and support product-printed startups.” It also includes preparing an educated, skilled workforce able to fill the expected increase in manufacturing jobs.

“There are going to be a lot of companies moving to this region,” says Mitchell, using the recently opened Shell cracker plant in Potter Township as an example. “We have to get ready for when this pickup begins.”

Catalyst and its partners believe that, if successful, the GPMCC plan will lead to a two percent annual job growth in manufacturing.

A major portion of the plan deals with transitioning unemployed coal workers into the advanced manufacturing sector, or training them to become entrepreneurs. Coal has seen a drastic downturn in recent years due to the rise of shale gas and widespread divestment from the industry. Last year, the Canonsburg-based power company Consol Energy—a major player in the coal industry for more than 150 years—paid $44 million to divest in two WV mining facilities.

Mitchell points out that the decline hurts all workers directly employed by the industry, from miners to white-collar supervisors and managers, as well as the small businesses in coal towns.

“Our most impacted counties have swung from having some of the lowest unemployment rates in the region to having some of the highest,” says Mitchell, citing coal dependent areas such as Greene County and Fayette County. “That really hurts a community.”

Robert Stein, executive director of Pitt’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence (IEE), says his family’s work in the coal industry has allowed him to see firsthand the devastation communities experience after mass layoffs. As a GPMCC partner, he explains that the IEE will step in to stabilize coal-affected businesses, and assist former coal employees interested in striking out on their own.

“We want them to reinvent themselves and learn to be entrepreneurs, and a lot of them can start their own businesses,” says Stein, adding that federal and state funding allow the IEE to provide their services at no cost.

IEE workshop with regional business owners. Image courtesy of Catalyst Connection.
IEE workshop. Image courtesy of Catalyst Connection.

To do so, the IEE will work with WVU, Greene County Economic Development and JARI to provide outreach and coordinate workshops, seminars and other training programs in communities where displaced coal workers live.

While the GPMCC’s main focus is to make connections between advanced manufacturing and coal impacted communities, Stein says the plan will also account for those workers who have other interests.

“If people want to get into manufacturing or get retrained for manufacturing jobs, that’s a plus,” says Stein. “But for people who want to open a pizza shop or become a florist, we’re also there to help.”

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.