According to new numbers released by the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development, the local unemployment rate resumed its descent — albeit a small one — to 7.4 percent, compared to 7.5 in February. This time a year ago, the local jobless mark was 7.6.
The Bradley County mark stayed ahead of the state rate (7.9 percent) and the national tally (7.6). To the surprise of some, the local figure also again outperformed Bradley’s larger neighbor to the west. Hamilton County, whose numbers are driven predominately by Chattanooga employers, showed a jobless mark of 7.7 percent, an increase from February’s tally of 7.6.
The latest numbers for Bradley place the local jurisdiction in a two-way tie with Macon County for the 19th lowest jobless mark in Tennessee.
“Bradley County’s is a very good rate,” said Larry Green, labor market analyst who monitors the employment picture for parts of Southeast Tennessee for the state office. “In looking at some of the bordering counties, Bradley is doing a lot better.”
Though a “good rate” is not a perfect rate, it is promising as certain warm-weather employment sectors begin their rise from winter hibernation, Green cited.
One is construction. Another is leisure and hospitality which is a state category for tourism. This normally includes area hotels and motels, as well as restaurants and eateries.
“In March, the construction industry was up, and leisure and hospitality showed a nice gain,” Green pointed out. “These two are seasonal [sectors] we expect to see an increase in this time of year ... with the weather warming up. Of course, March wasn’t exactly a heat wave, but [the local numbers] did go up.”
Slight employment increases were also pegged in temporary staffing, retail trade, and private education and health services.
Amid the flurry of positive news, one growing fly in the Bradley County ointment is manufacturing, which showed a slight drop in hiring for the third report period in a row.
“Bradley County had only one [employment] industry decline and that was manufacturing,” Green said. “This does make the third consecutive month in 2013 with a slight decline in manufacturing ... it has gone down each of these months. But these drops were slight. They don’t reflect a trend.”
On his wish list for the month of April, Green hopes to see a reverse in Bradley County’s manufacturing fortunes. It could potentially happen based on recent announcements by Whirlpool Cleveland Division that it is planning to hire 100 production workers for a second-shift assembly line and support areas in its new Benton Pike plant; as well as Jackson Furniture whose recent growth is expected to add about 50 jobs in the near future.
Other manufacturing expansions may be looming in Bradley County of which Green has not been made aware.
On manufacturing’s downside, the local job market may tilt with the recent announcement by Volkswagen that some 500 Aerotak contract workers will be laid off from the giant production facility near Ooltewah. Although the major employer lies in Hamilton County, some of its workers commute from the Cleveland area. However, Green has no current figures on the number of Bradley County residents who are employed by Volkswagen, nor how many — or few — will be affected by the layoff.
Local workers caught up in the workforce reduction — created by slower-than-expected growth in demand for the Volkswagen plant’s Passat — would file unemployment claims in Bradley County which could impact the local jobless figure.
Any local impact will also depend on timing.
“I don’t know if they’re planning to lay off the workers all at once, or if it’ll be over a period of two or three months or more,” Green said.
According to published reports, the layoffs will begin in late May.
When Volkswagen made the announcement two weeks ago, officials acknowledged Passat sales started strong with the new plant’s opening, but demand weakened by late 2012. This created the need to scale back planned hiring and to eliminate a third production shift. The company attempted to avoid layoffs by cutting back production days.
In spite of the layoffs, Volkswagen still expects 2013 Passat sales to exceed last year’s numbers by around 5 percent, published reports indicated.
Even with the Volkswagen plant encountering a few hiccups, Bradley County’s employment picture is still looking up as more new businesses continue to come online. One is the LongHorn Steakhouse (near the new Holiday Inn Express) whose opening is imminent, and another is the massive Publix Supermarket in Mouse Creek Crossing that is expected to land about 100 workers by the end of this year.
For March, Bradley County’s joblessness continued to outperform its immediate neighbors. Some include Marion County, 8.7 percent representing a drop from 9.5 percent in February; McMinn, 9.2, a drop from 9.3; Meigs, 10, down from 10.2; Monroe, 10.9, unchanged; Polk, 8.5, down from 9.3; and Rhea, 11.5, up from 11.2.
Statewide, unemployment decreased in 58 counties, increased in 24, and remained the same in 13. State numbers also show that unemployment in March was 5 to 9.9 percent in 51 counties, and 10 percent or higher in 44. No counties had jobless rates less than 5 percent nor higher than 20 percent.
Tennessee’s lowest unemployment rates were found in Williamson County, 5.1 percent; Lincoln, 5.4; Knox, 6.2; Rutherford, Davidson and Sumner, 6.3; Cannon, 6.5; and Cheatham, Wilson and Blount, 6.6.
The state’s highest jobless marks came in Scott County, 17.2 percent; Lauderdale, 14.2; Pickett, 13.3; Gibson, 13; Obion, 12.6; Carroll, 12.3; Henderson, 12.2; Lawrence and Van Buren, 12.1; and Haywood, 11.9.
For Bradley County’s immediate future, Green sees continued stabilization and perhaps slight drops in unemployment.
“Our anticipation for April would be about the same,” he said. “We might see some hiring in construction, and leisure and hospitality. I don’t think retail trade will see any [major hiring].”
For now, Green projects the only fluctuation ahead for Bradley County as coming in June when nonteaching employees in area school systems slide off the payrolls for summer vacation, and then resume work in the fall.
To date, he is unaware of any pending layoffs nor major hiring by Bradley County employers.