A brief two-month skid in the wrong direction came to a screeching halt in March as Bradley County’s unemployment rate plummeted to its lowest level since 2008 at 6.1 percent.
The three-tenths of 1 percent drop, from 6.4 in February, erased any negative impact from a pair of state labor reports that saw the local employment ledgers slide by one-tenth of 1 percent in January, and two-tenths of a percent a month later.
Larry Green, labor market analyst for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, told the Cleveland Daily Banner on Thursday that the positive numbers indicate “... Bradley County is looking strong economically; the unemployment rate is certainly looking good.”
It’s not a record low, but Green acknowledged — without researching the community’s unemployment history — that 6.1 percent constitutes the lowest mark in recent years.
Buoyed by strong hiring in temporary services and leisure and hospitality, and moderate increases in construction, retail trade and private education/health services, the Bradley County mark placed it in a three-way tie with Blount and Coffee counties as the 13th lowest jobless rate among Tennessee’s 95 counties.
The state and national rates for March were both 6.7 percent.
“Bradley County is going in the right direction as far as unemployment ... down,” Green said. “Bradley is lower than the state rate, lower than the national rate and lower than the counties surrounding it.”
The local figure again bested its larger neighbor to the west, Hamilton County, which recorded a mark of 6.8 percent.
But the news was also good for plenty of other counties across the state. Totaled, the jobless mark decreased in 86 counties. Rates increased in only four — Grundy, Montgomery, Moore and Putnam — and remained the same in five.
Across the state, two counties — Williamson and Lincoln — reported rates below 5 percent; 74 counties recorded marks ranging from 5 to 9.9 percent; and 19 counties saw figures of 10 percent or greater. No counties reported joblessness in excess of 20 percent.
Rates, and their amount of change, in counties surrounding Bradley included Hamilton, 6.8 percent, down from 6.9; Marion, 8.8, down from 9.4; McMinn, 7.7, down from 8.1; Meigs, 8.8, down from 9.1; Monroe, 8.8, down from 9.4; Polk, 8.6, down from 10; and Rhea, 9.2, down from 9.7.
Bradley County’s rise in temporary services apparently means more companies are hiring from staffing agencies, and the strong increase in leisure and hospitality signifies spring weather is already attracting travelers. Leisure and hospitality includes hotels, motels, restaurants and rental car services.
A slight increase in construction also points to the return of warmer weather which generally means more building activity in the area, Green explained.
He said Bradley County’s only negative came in the manufacturing sector. There, a slight decline in hiring was recorded, but the jobs analyst said it was not a significant difference.
“It was pretty much [a good month for hiring] across the board in Tennessee,” Green said. But the fact that the jobless numbers went down is overall a good indicator for many areas, especially Bradley, he added.
“Going from February to March, we anticipated a small fluctuation either way,” Green noted. “In this case, [unemployment] went down. Going into April and May, we don’t normally see much fluctuation. Barring anything unexpected, we shouldn’t see anything dramatic until June.”
That’s when nonteaching personnel — those who don’t work on a 12-month contract — will take a hiatus from the payrolls for the summer. Their loss should be reflected in the June report, which means Bradley County’s unemployment rate could take an uptick.
“[It’s been] a long, long time since Bradley County came in under 6 percent,” Green said.
Whether it happens could depend on manufacturing.
“It will be a question of avoiding major layoffs, not just in Bradley County but in surrounding counties that might affect things here,” he pointed out.
Even the loss in nonteaching labor in June could be offset by high school students entering the summer workforce in restaurants and other job sites that use teen workers, Green suggested. As spring deepens and the summer approaches, construction hiring should also continue to pick up, he said.
“Right now, I can’t see anything that will negatively impact the Bradley County rate,” Green advised. “I don’t know of any major layoffs ahead. It’s looking very solid right now.”
Green also pointed to the significance of the employment trend locally. In March 2013, the jobless rate in Bradley County was 7.7 percent.
“[Unemployment] is 1.6 percent less in Bradley County than this time last year,” he said. “That’s definitely heading in the right direction. That’s what you like to see.”
But sustainability is the key.
Strong employment in an area or region is always a positive economic indicator, but it’s not as powerful a message if it’s sporadic and is limited to an isolated month or two. Green said hiring “trends” are the best sign of economic strength.
The fact Bradley County is continuing to show employment strength — from 7.7 to 6.1 percent in a year’s time — is a positive trend.
Across the state, counties recording the lowest unemployment rates included Williamson, 4.6; Lincoln, 4.9; Rutherford, 5.1; Wilson, 5.3; Cheatham, Sumner and Robertson, 5.4; Davidson, 5.5; and Knox and Cannon, 5.6 percent.
Counties reporting the highest jobless marks were Scott, 14.8; Pickett, 12.4; Lauderdale, 11.7; McNairy, 11; Gibson, 10.8; Hardeman, 10.6; Wayne and Stewart, 10.5; and Van Buren and Lawrence, 10.4.