“I didn’t see this big of a drop coming,” said Larry Green, labor market analyst for the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development who closely monitors jobs strength in Bradley County and some of its Southeast Tennessee neighbors.
He expected a slight decrease, but he didn’t expect this.
Already bearing the lowest jobless rate in this corner of the state for the past year, Bradley County’s unemployment numbers last month plummeted to 5.1 percent, a full percentage point down from 6.1 in March. A year ago, in April 2013, the local mark stood at 7.5 percent.
“What’s interesting is normally in April you have some fluctuation, maybe it (unemployment rate) goes down a little ... but it’s unusual to see a drop of an entire point; at least, for this time of year,” Green said.
The jobless slide, which has now been in the works for several months, landed Bradley County in a two-way tie with Coffee County for the state’s 13th lowest unemployment rate. But the duo was in good company. For the first time that Green could remember, all 95 Tennessee counties enjoyed a reduction in their jobless numbers.
“It’s an overall really, really good month,” the longtime state manpower analyst cited. “I don’t recall the last time all 95 counties went down. Normally, at least one or two will go up or stay the same.”
Signs that America’s economic rebound is strengthening were evident across the state and nation. Jobless rates in Tennessee and the U.S. both fell in April to 6.3 percent, down from 6.7 in March.
According to Green’s research, this is the lowest unemployment rate in Bradley County in the last 6 1/2 years. The local jobless mark weighed in at an even 5 percent in November 2007. Prior to that, from January through October 2007, the rate hovered from 4 percent to just under 4.9. In April and May of that year, the figure was an even 4 percent, Green pointed out.
“We’re looking at [the lowest unemployment rate in Bradley County] in 6 1/2 years or more,” Green stressed.
And that’s just the good news. It could ... conceivably ... get better, at least for another month. That’s because jobless rates in May tend to follow the same pattern as April. Only time will tell, but Green has reason to be optimistic.
“It is very possible that [the Bradley County rate] could go under 5 percent in May,” he said.
Although the continued plunge would be another feather in the hat of economic recovery, Green acknowledged the rate should rise in June because nonteaching personnel in area school systems — those who don’t work on a 12-month contract — will be added to unemployment rolls for the summer months. They will return to work in August.
Bradley County’s strong employment base in April was buoyed by significant hiring in several categories, including leisure and hospitality (tourism), temporary services, manufacturing, construction and retail trade. The only downside to the month were slight hiring drops in private education and health services, as well as local government which includes the local education systems, Green explained.
“Leisure and hospitality was the largest gainer in employment,” he noted. “That’s seasonal so it was expected.”
In warmer months, this category traditionally picks up. It includes hotels, motels, restaurants and even rental car agencies.
“Temporary services also had a real nice gain,” Green said. “Manufacturing had a nice little jump and we also saw a small increase in construction employment and another small increase in retail trade.”
Bradley County’s neighbors also have reason to breathe a little easier about the present, and maybe the future. All saw decreases in their own unemployment rates. Some included Hamilton County, 5.6 percent, down from 6.7 in March; Marion, 7.2, down from 8.6; McMinn, 6.5, down from 7.7; Meigs, 7.3, down from 8.8; Monroe, 7.3, down from 8.8; Polk, 7.6, down from 8.6; and Rhea, 7.6, down from 9.2.
The state’s lowest jobless rates were found in Williamson County, 3.9; Lincoln, 4; Rutherford, 4.4; Wilson and Moore, 4.5; Cheatham and Sumner, 4.6; Davidson and Knox, 4.7; and Robertson, 4.8.
The state’s highest unemployment rates were reported in Scott County, 13.5; Lauderdale, 10.3; Pickett, 9.7; Wayne, 9.3; Gibson and McNairy, 9.1; Hardeman, 8.9; Haywood and Van Buren, 8.6; and Lawrence, 8.5.
Across Tennessee, April’s unemployment rate was 4.9 percent or less in 14 counties; from 5 to 9.9 percent in 79 counties; and 10 percent or higher in two counties. No counties reported a rate in excess of 20 percent.
Whether Bradley County’s employment base can absorb seasonal education-related layoffs this summer will depend on the strength of construction and tourism, and to a degree manufacturing, Green advised. If all remain strong, they could “... offset the layoffs of nonteaching personnel in the school systems,” he noted. If not, a slight increase can be expected in the unemployment rate for June, Green projected.
“We’re always happy to see manufacturing hiring so maybe that’ll continue,” he stressed.
A low unemployment rate is considered by most a reliable indicator of economic strength in a region, according to Doug Berry, vice president of Economic Development for the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce.
“Needless to say, we are extremely excited about this growth in employment in the community, and the significant decrease over the past year in the unemployment rate,” Berry said. “It’s the result of the hardworking people of Cleveland and Bradley County.”
But it’s more than just the general populace, he added. It’s the direct result of what Berry described as a cooperative relationship between local government leaders who recognize the need for bringing new business and industry into the community, while also recognizing the contribution of existing industry and the needs that current operations face.
“The level of cooperation in economic development [by local government leaders] has allowed us to put together some significant new projects,” Berry said.
While these initiatives have led to new hiring and expanded workforces, Berry stressed much of Bradley County’s good fortunes in lowered jobless rates has been the result of “spinoff growth.”
“A lot of this [Bradley County’s] growth is not direct manufacturing growth, but is spinoff growth,” he said. “Significant growth has occurred over the last few years in professional services ... accountants, lawyers, business consultants, banking ... all of these service-oriented businesses [are primarily the result] of the growth in our economy as a whole.”
Although the Cleveland and Bradley County community is enjoying better times financially and in economic development that is supporting financial gain, Berry cautioned a local task remains at hand; that is, the “tweaking” of successes to assure that the voice of the region’s existing industry base is being heard.
“Things to work on now with this remaining 5.1 percent [of unemployed workers] is to build the skill level,” he said. Expanding their potential through continued education and training opportunities — as young and as older adults — through local higher education institutions will benefit Bradley County employers, Berry noted.
Improving formal education and technical training skills in the local employment base will better prepare Cleveland and Bradley County for the next round of industry recruitment, new and existing, the longtime economic development professional explained.
Bradley County’s current jobless mark is based on a total labor force of 48,960, some 46,470 of whom report having jobs whether full- or part-time. This leaves 2,490 still out of work.
The state labor report does not include unemployed workers who have stopped looking for jobs and who are no longer eligible for unemployment benefits. In the industry, they are refered to as “frustrated workers” because they have stopped looking for work due to little or no opportunities in their specific careers.