An unexpected slump in construction employment is being fingered as the primary culprit in Bradley County’s slight uptick in jobless numbers for the month of April, according to a Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development analyst who monitors local hiring.
Although the news sounds bad given that spring is normally the gateway into new building activities, the more positive spin is that the unemployment rate climbed by only one-tenth of 1 percent, from 7.4 to 7.5 percent. Bradley County was one of 23 counties to see a slight rise in jobless rates, but the mark still places the local jurisdiction in a three-way tie with Hamilton and Macon counties as the 18th lowest in the state.
“The only real ... little bit of a surprise was that construction declined slightly,” said Larry Green, state labor market analyst. “It’s not a big increase, but normally this time of year we see [construction employment] go up because of improving weather conditions. The fact that it went down [is a surprise], but it was slight and not very significant.”
The topsy-turvy construction hiring rate began its season of surprises in March by going up slightly, against the norm, only to drop a little a month later, which again goes against the norm, Green pointed out.
Still, based on seasonal trends, odds are that construction employment will pick up once this especially wet spring season begins to dry up, the analyst advised. An array of local building activities are either starting up or are waiting in the wings to be launched.
In a related update late last week in a formal monthly session of the Cleveland Board of Public Utilities, Craig T. Mullinax, vice president of Cleveland Utilities’ Water Division, reported for April a total of 24 meter sets. A meter set is the physical connection of new buildings to CU’s existing water system. This is a measure of new construction and economic development.
Of the meter sets, Mullinax reported 14 were for single-family units, three apartments, two duplexes, four commercial enterprises and one for irrigation. Other new construction is already in the works such as the massive Publix Supermarket on Huff Parkway, a Jenkins Deli and Hardee’s restaurant at Spring Creek, and several others.
In a monthly building report last week for April, Bradley County recorded its highest level of construction activity of the year and Cleveland reached its second-highest level. That’s why the slight drop in construction hiring — at least for one month — has left analysts scratching their heads.
Bradley County saw no fluctuation in manufacturing hiring in April which is a good sign because the industry had witnessed slight drops in January, February and March.
“These were small declines ... and not indicative of a trend, but in April [Bradley County] held even in manufacturing and that was a good sign,” Green said.
Retail trade saw a small climb in hiring, but this was offset by a slight decrease in a category called “financial activities” which includes banking and real estate.
“We had small declines there, but we did see a pretty decent jump [in hiring] in temporary services,” he noted. “We also had a very good increase in leisure and hospitality (a reference to the tourist industry which includes motels, hotels and restaurants). [This category] benefits from Polk County rafting which spills over into Bradley County. That’s seasonal so we expect it to start going up.”
Another small hiring decline came in education and health services which includes private education and privately owned nursing homes, Green said.
“When you put all the slight ups and slight downs together, we came up with an increase [in unemployment] of one-tenth of 1 percent,” he offered. “That’s not a significant amount. On the whole, with the exception of construction going down a little, Bradley County pretty much followed seasonal trends in all industries. We had no real surprises other than construction.”
Green pointed to “stability” in local employment which is kept afloat by jobs diversity in manufacturing and nonmanufacturing sectors.
“Bradley County has a good economic picture,” Green said.
The local unemployment rate compares favorably with both the state and national marks. The U.S. jobless figure is also 7.5 and the Tennessee rate is 8 percent.
Most of Bradley County’s immediate neighbors saw slight dips or no change in their jobless marks. Hamilton County dropped to 7.5, from 7.6; Marion County reported 8.2, down from 8.6; McMinn stayed the same at 9.2; Meigs County showed 9.8, down from 10; Monroe County remained unchanged at 10.9; Polk County saw the biggest drop, from 8.2 to 7.8; and Rhea County reported 11.3, down from 11.5.
Statewide, the jobless rate dropped in 62 counties, increased in 23 and remained the same in 10. The rate ranges from 5 percent to 9.9 percent in 59 counties, and is 10 percent or higher in 36 counties. No counties reported unemployment marks less than 5 percent or higher than 20 percent.
The state’s lowest unemployment rates were found in Williamson County, 5.3 percent; Lincoln, 5.6; Rutherford, 6.3; Knox, 6.4; Wilson, Davidson, Sumner and Cannon, 6.5; and Cheatham and Blount, 6.6 percent.
The state’s highest jobless figures came in Scott County, 16.1; Lauderdale, 13.5; Pickett, 13.2; Gibson, 12.4; Hancock, 11.8; Perry and Lawrence, 11.7; and Van Buren, Carroll and Henderson counties, 11.6.
One uncertainty that could still influence the Bradley County unemployment picture is the local impact of the recent announcement that the Volkswagen plant in Hamilton County is laying off 500 temporary workers due to sagging sales of the Passat which is assembled in the massive factory just across the Bradley County line.
Green said local residents who commute to Volkswagen, and who are included in the layoff, will file for unemployment benefits in Bradley County.