Hospitality industry reaches new employment peak in Chattanooga

Photo by Dave Flessner / Dos Bros on South Broad Street is among many restaurants and hotels seeking to hire more workers in Chattanooga.

Chattanooga's leisure and hospitality industry led the way in new job creation during the past year, growing employment in the metro area by 7.6%, or 2,200 more jobs, to reach a new record high, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statics.

After shedding more than 10,000 jobs when the coronavirus pandemic shut down most restaurants, entertainment venues and some hotels in the spring of 2020, the local hospitality industry has bounced back and grown to nearly double its pandemic lows.

In July, a record 31,300 workers were on the job in leisure and hospitality businesses in the 6-county Chattanooga metro region. That helped cut the area jobless rate last month from 3.8% in June to 3.5% in July.

"We are very encouraged to see our employment levels in leisure and hospitality return and even exceed pre-pandemic levels," Barry White, president and CEO of Chattanooga Tourism Co., said in a statement Thursday. "With several attractions, restaurants, and hotels in various stages of development, plus the Chattanooga Airport's planned expansion, the future is bright for job growth in hospitality in Chattanooga."

The tourism turnaround has helped grow tourism spending in the Chattanooga region to nearly $1.5 billion a year and White said he expects that to continue to grow.

Hamilton County experienced a 30% drop in visitor spending, or $450 million less, in 2020 alone, according to a U.S. Travel study. In 2021, 7,900 jobs were recovered in Hamilton County, and for the first time in July 2022, the employment in leisure and hospitality in Hamilton County now exceeds pre-pandemic levels.

"Now more than ever, there is so much opportunity in tourism to gain professional skills, advance quickly, and build a life-long career," Hugh Morrow, chairman of the Chattanooga Tourism Co. and president and CEO of Ruby Falls, said in a statement about the industry's staffing needs.

Chattanooga hosts more than 15 million visitors a year. On an average day, that's roughly 40,000 visitors in town with 15,000 of those staying the night in a local hotel.

Visitors spend an average of $4.1 million per day on entertainment, shopping, dining and other spending in the Chattanooga area, according to U.S. Travel. White said visitors are temporary taxpayers who save every Hamilton County household $868 per year in taxes.

Despite the record-high gas prices this summer, tourism was still up with many groups holding conventions and meetings for the first time in three years this summer and more families opting to hit to road and travel for their vacation, White said.

But with extra cash saved when people were not traveling so much, purchases of household items like floorcoverings and kitchen appliances made in Northwest Georgia also are up. As a result, the nonseasonally adjusted unemployment rate last month fell in Dade County to a mere 2.2%, a record low, and unemployment was below 3% in both Dade and Walker counties.

Just to the south, the self-proclaimed "carpet capital of the world" -- Dalton, Georgia -- boasted a jobless rate of just 3.6%, down one-tenth of a percent over the month. A year ago, the rate was 4.4 percent. Last month was the first time in years that the non-seasonally adjusted jobless rate was lower in metropolitan Dalton than it was in metro Chattanooga.

"This summer, we have seen unemployment rates drop while job numbers have climbed," Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said in a report Thursday. "As employers have worked to fill positions with the most qualified people, job seekers have taken advantage of the wide range of employment opportunities with more benefits and flexibility than ever before."

During a presentation on Thursday to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the senior economist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Curtis Dubay, said the U.S. economy "is in for a few bumpy years" as it adjusts to supply chain and labor shortages coming out of the pandemic. But Dubay said he believes the labor market will remain fairly strong and the jobless rate historically low because of all of the unfilled jobs at present and the aging of the population which will continue to encourage more workers to retire.

"Businesses are so far behind in their hiring right now, that even if we are in a recession, many employers still can't meet the demand that they have now without hiring more workers," Dubay said. "We believe by 2025 the economy overall will be doing very well again."

Jobless in July

The non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate declined last month in 16 of the 19 counties in the Chattanooga area.

 Dade, 2.2% down from 2.7% in June

 Catoosa, 2.3%, down from 2.7% in June

– Walker, 2.6%, down from 2.9% in June

– Whitfield, 3.4%, down from 3.6% in June

– Chattooga, 3.7%, down from 4% in June

– Hamilton, 3.9%, down from 4.1% in June

– Coffee, 3.9%, down from 4.2% in June

– Murray, 39%, down from 4% in June

– Franklin, 4%, down from 4.3% in June

– Bradley, 4.1%, down from 4.4% in June

– Polk, 4.1%, down from 4.4% in June

– Marion, 4.6%, down from 4.7% in June

– McMinn, 4.7%, down from 4.9% in June

– Sequatchie, 4.8%, down from 4.9% in June

– Van Buren, 5.1%, unchanged from June

– Rhea, 5.3%, up from 5.2% in June

– Grundy, 5.7%, down from 5.9% in June

– Meigs, 5.7%, up from 5.2% in June

– Bledsoe, 6.1%, down from 6.6% in June

Sources: Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Georgia Department of Labor

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340. Follow on Twitter at @Dflessner1