Unemployment in the Chattanooga area fell last month to the lowest level in more than three years, and state economists expect employment gains this year should help cut the local jobless rate still further.
"I think 2012 and 2013 are going to be especially strong years for employment growth in Tennessee, better than the U.S. as a whole," said Matt Murray, the associate director of the University of Tennessee's Center for Business and Economic Research. "The unemployment rate will remain stubbornly high as more workers come back into the labor market. But I don't see the housing market getting any worse and the transportation equipment market, which is critical for Tennessee and places like Chattanooga, should continue to grow this year."
The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said Thursday that unemployment in the six-county Chattanooga metropolitan area declined by 0.1 percent in December to 7.3 percent -- the lowest rate since November 2008. The jobless rate fell in 11 of the 18 counties in the region.
Over the past year, metro Chattanooga added 5,100 jobs for a 2.1 percent growth in employment.
The jobless rate was lowest in the region in the North Georgia bedroom community of Catoosa County, where unemployment fell to 6.4 percent, and was highest in highest in the Southeast Tennessee county of Polk, where unemployment rose in December to 13.1 percent.
Nationwide, the comparable nonseasonally adjusted jobless rate at the end of 2011 was 8.3 percent, and Tennessee's unemployment rate averaged 8.1 percent in December.
In nearby metropolitan Dalton, which includes Whitfield and Murray counties, unemployment rose last month to 12.1 percent. Unemployment in Dalton remained the highest among Georgia's 14 metro areas as Dalton shed another 300 jobs during the month, according to the Georgia Department of Labor.
"It's hard to brag too much or feel to good about it when you've lost 6,000 jobs in the manufacturing [since the peak in 2007]," said Brian Anderson, president of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce. "We'll probably be above the 10 percent [rate for unemployment] for a number of months longer."
Larry Kimmel, a former Navy security officer and diesel mechanic who has been looking for work since he retired from the Navy in August, is among those out of work in Dalton.
"Human resources people, they tell you to leave a number and they'll get back to you," he said while applying for jobs at the Georgia employment office in Dalton on Thursday. "I've put in 30 applications, and you know how many have returned my call? None of them."
Matthew Dugan, 19, said he has worked since he was 14 years old but this is the first time he has been unemployed.
"People don't want to give younger guys like me a change to learn," he said. "They say you need experience; well, how else are you supposed to get experience?"
Reporter Carey Smith contributed to this story.