Unemployment in the Sequatchie Valley counties of Bledsoe, Marion and Sequatchie took a slight dip this spring as the region passes the midpoint of the year.
Rates are flat and remaining flat "with some tendency toward improvement," said Patrick Todd, the Chattanooga-based labor market analyst for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
"But if that's indicative of some kind of recovery, it's hard to tell," Todd said. Job growth has been slow in all parts of the region and it's "hard to pinpoint" what is creating the few jobs people are finding, he said.
Sequatchie County, at 8.4 percent in May, had the lowest unemployment rate in the Valley and among Southeast Tennessee's rural counties, records show. Sequatchie's rate dropped 0.4 percent from 8.8 percent last month and was down 1.6 percent from a year ago.
Marion County's rate, 9.6 percent, remained flat from April to May but remained under 10 percent. Marion's rate was 10.1 percent a year ago, records show.
Bledsoe had the highest rate among the valley counties at 11.5 percent, and among the highest across Southeast Tennessee. Still, Bledsoe's jobless rate in May dropped 0.5 percent from April, the same shift that records show happened from May 2010 to this year.
Larry Green, market analyst for the state Department of Labor who focuses on rural Southeast Tennessee counties, said the new state prison in Bledsoe will probably be the biggest job boon the valley will see in the next few years without new industry.
The industry losses in past in the Sequatchie Valley - including the closings of Dura Automotive, Tecumseh and a nearby Shaw plant - will have a lasting impact on employment, Green said.
"The backbone of so many counties is manufacturing," he said. "Until manufacturing picks up, we won't really see a major drop in the unemployment rate."
The Bledsoe County Correctional Complex slated to open in January 2013 will be one silver lining for Bledsoe County and its neighbors, he predicted.
Prison officials predict the 1,444-bed prison will add as many as 450 jobs.
Green said those jobs might not be high-paying technical jobs but they are state jobs with good benefits, a prize combination to job seekers.