The secret to Butler County's manufacturing success is not only a willingness to adapt but also the presence of an industrial ecosystem of sorts: a local network of companies and resources that help one another survive. At its core is AK Steel, which stayed in business while countless other steel mills in the Rust Belt succumbed to foreign competition. As a result, smaller businesses--such as Wise--that build parts and perform repairs for AK Steel have also survived. These companies are hothouses of innovation, spawning entrepreneurs who spin off to form their own firms. This, in turn, has preserved a skilled, local workforce.
If you thought Pittsburgh is just an eds and meds town, then you are wrong. Whether you are looking at Allegheny County or the entire metro (if not the whole state), you overlook Butler County. The region tends to defy assessment from on high. Certainly, the recent report from Brookings is ignorant of this geography. You won't find Butler County in the conclusion celebrating manufacturing and exports.
Butler County's economy has long depended on making steel and fashioning it into precision tools, industries that most Americans think have largely fled overseas. To survive, companies here have successfully adapted, using flexible manufacturing techniques that marry computers with a skilled workforce to craft products for international markets. And in the wake of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the unemployment rate in Butler County stood at just 6.8 percent in September, far lower than the national average. (emphasis added)
A big part of that impressive statistic includes county residents who commute into Pittsburgh for those eds and meds jobs (among others). There is also plenty of work to be found throughout Butler County, such as at Westinghouse. Fayette County, also part of the Pittsburgh region, recently reported unemployment at 10%. This reminds me of the Rust Belt. The negative brand applies equally everywhere, regardless of the conditions within the community. Detroit is no different than Ann Arbor.
I appreciate the value of comparing apples to apples. And we can cherry pick success stories in any region. But there's something wrong when the analysis overlooks the likes of Butler County.