Unemployment in the Chattanooga area dropped in April to its lowest level in history as employers continued to hire more workers even as the size of the local workforce dropped during the month.
Despite higher interest rates pushed up by the Federal Reserve Board's attempt to slow the economy and inflation, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said the jobless rate in the six-county Chattanooga metropolitan area fell by four tenths of a percentage point in April to 2.6%.
Chattanooga's nonseasonally adjusted unemployment rate in April matched Tennessee's overall rate and was the lowest monthly rate since the state began keeping comparable records over the past three decades.
Unemployment in Chattanooga was also well below the comparable nonseasonally adjusted jobless rate of 3.1% for the U.S. as a whole.
"Demand and production remain strong despite the higher interest rates," Don Bruce, director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, said in an analysis of the new data. "We expect job growth to be strong in Tennessee over the next few years, outpacing the nation, although growth will likely not exceed the state's strong rates of pre-pandemic growth of around 2% per year."
April's record-low jobless rate for Chattanooga comes just three years after unemployment jumped to a record-high of 13.6% in April 2020, when businesses and schools shut down during the early part of the pandemic.
Chattanooga lost more than 35,000 jobs, at least temporarily, in the early part of the pandemic, and it took nearly three years to regain all of those jobs, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
Bruce said unemployment is now at a record low, in part, because labor force participation remains below the pre-pandemic levels, continuing a long-term downward trend that started several years before the pandemic. An aging workforce has led more Tennesseans to retire from their jobs, and the pandemic caused many workers to rethink their jobs and careers, Bruce said.
In April, only 59.2% of adults in Tennessee were either working or actively looking for a job, down from 60.6% a year earlier.
Over the past year, Chattanooga employers added a net of 3,139 more workers to their payrolls, but the size of Chattanooga's labor force grew by only 1,740 workers. With fewer new workers entering the labor market, unemployment has hovered at or near historic lows for most of the past year.
Preliminary job figures released Thursday by the state showed the number of Chattanoogans on the job continued to grow slightly in April, but the size of the workforce in the six-county region dropped by 1,279 people.
Charles Wood, president of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, said the low unemployment rate is good for workers seeking jobs and reflects the economic strength in the region. But he said it also underscores the needs outlined in the chamber's new economic development strategy to recruit and develop both businesses and workers.
"There's lots of opportunity in the market and more opportunities for people who may have had a harder time year ago in finding good employment opportunities," Wood said in an interview Friday. "But certainly from an employers' standpoint, the market is more challenging, and that's why talent development is also a key part of our strategy going forth."
Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said he just spent three days in New Orleans at a Federal Reserve of Atlanta event as part of the Southern Cities Economic Inclusion Initiative to expand and diversify workforce participation.
"We're moving in the right direction with our initiatives for child care, preschool programs, public transportation, education and other workplace programs to help people go to work," Kelly said. "It's one of the most important things I do."
REGIONAL JOB MARKET
Chattanooga's drop in unemployment was replicated across Tennessee with all 95 counties in the state reporting lower unemployment rates in April..
Williamson County just outside of Nashville recorded the lowest unemployment rate in the state in April at 1.9%.
Bledsoe County had the state's highest rate at 4.6%, but that was down 0.7% from March. Meigs County had the next-highest rate at 4.5%, but that was down a full percentage point from the 5.5% jobless rate in Meigs County a month earlier.
In Georgia, the carpet capital of Whitfield County reported the sixth-highest jobless rate among the state's 159 counties. The Dalton, Georgia, area lost 644 jobs over the past year as the floor covering industry trimmed some staffing in response to a downturn in orders as interest rates have risen.
But April's unemployment rate in Dalton was still below the previous month due to a drop in the labor force in Dalton during April.
Georgia Labor Commissioner Bruce Thompson said Thursday that Dalton recorded an unemployment rate of 4.1 percent in April, down one-tenth of a percentage point over the month. A year ago, the rate was 2.9 percent.
Statewide, Georgia's jobless rate in April remained at 3.1% for the ninth month in row, just slightly above the record low of 2.9%, Thompson said.
In the three North Georgia counties in the Chattanooga metropolitan area — Catoosa, Dade and Walker — unemployment ranged from 2.1% to 2.6% — well below the comparable national jobless rate in April of 3.1%.
"With Georgia's economy continuing to soar, the state unemployment rates remain steady," Thompson said. "When you consider the number of existing companies expanding throughout the state, combined with the incredible announcements of corporations moving to our state, the future continues to look very bright for the labor market.
"As we approach the summer months, we are optimistic that job growth will remain steady in virtually every sector in the state," Thompson said.
While employment has dropped in Dalton, Chattanooga employers are still seeking more workers and adding more jobs. On Friday, Tennessee career centers listed 365,151 open jobs across Tennessee, or more than three times the number of Tennesseans who are unemployed and still actively looking for work.
Volkswagen of America is trying to hire another 500 workers this year for its Chattanooga assembly plant and is conducting an onsite job fair from 10 am. to 6 p.m. next Friday.
The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development also said employers have job openings ready and waiting through the Summer Youth Employment Program, which provides job opportunities for those age 14 through 24 years old. The eight-week summer youth program pays workers as much as $16 per hour.
Young people interested in participating in the program should visit TNWorkReady.com or their local American Job Center for more information.
JOBLESS IN APRIL
The nonseasonally adjusted jobless rate fell in April in all 95 Tennessee counties and dropped to historic lows in the six-county Chattanooga metropolitan area. But unemployment rates in some counties surrounding Chattanooga last month were among the highest in Tennessee and Georgia. Bledsoe and Meigs counties had the highest jobless rate among all 95 counties in Tennessee, and Whitfield and Chattooga tied for having the sixth-highest jobless rate among Georgia's 159 counties.
— Dade (Georgia) - 2.1%, down from 2.8% in March.
— Catoosa (Georgia) - 2.3%, down from 2.9% in March.
— Walker (Georgia) - 2.6%, down from 3.2% in March.
— Hamilton - 2.6%, down from 3% in March.
— Coffee - 2.7%, down from 3.2% in March.
— Franklin - 2.7%, down from 3.3% in March.
— Bradley - 2.8%, down from 3.5% in March.
— Sequatchie - 3.0%, down from 3.5% in March.
— Marion - 3.1%, down from 3.5% in March.
— Polk - 3.2%, down from 3.8% in March.
— McMinn - 3.5%, down from 4.3% in March.
— Rhea - 3.5%, down from 4.3% in March.
— Grundy - 3.6%, down from 4.4% in March.
— Van Buren - 3.6%, down from 4.4% in March.
— Murray (Georgia) - 4.0%, down from 4.2% in March.
— Chattooga (Georgia) - 4.1%, unchanged from March.
— Whitfield (Georgia) - 4.1%, down from 4.2% in March.
— Meigs - 4.5%, down from 5.5% in March.
— Bledsoe - 4.6%, down from 5.3% in March.
Sources: Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development and Georgia Department of Labor.