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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Robert Hensley gets his paperwork organized during a job fair put on by EPIC Talent Solutions Wednesday, August 22, 2018 at the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There were 49 companies with job openings on hand to speak with job seekers.

This story was updated Friday, Dec. 27, 2019, at 8 p.m. with more information.

Unemployment in Catoosa and Walker counties fell to an all-time low last month as the demand for workers in Northwest Georgia continued to outpace the growth of the workforce.

The jobless rate in Catoosa County fell to 2.3% and unemployment fell to 2.5% in neighboring Walker County during November. That was the lowest jobless rates on record with the Georgia Department of Labor for those counties and helped lower unemployment in the six-county Chattanooga metropolitan area below 3% last month for only the second time in nearly two decades.

"It's a real challenge to get enough workers today with this record low unemployment," said Steven Henry, a Ringgold, Georgia, home builder for the past 23 years who is also chairman of the Catoosa County Board of Commissioners. "If you're not working now, you don't want to because there are jobs out there for just about every skill level there is."

With the statewide unemployment rate in Georgia at the lowest level in decades, 10 Georgia counties had a lower jobless rate even than Catoosa County, including Jackson and Oconee where unemployment last month was a mere 1.9%.

"Georgia's population growth is nearly twice the U.S. average which has increased the available workforce," said Jeffrey Humphreys, director of the Simon S. Selig, Jr. Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia. "But this very long economic expansion has pulled down the unemployment rates in many counties to record lows and we expect the economy to continue to grow next year. These low unemployment rates suggest that the economy is very strong and we're likely at or near the peak of this employment cycle."

Despite the threat of a trade war and a global economic slowdown, Humphreys expects the economy to continue to grow and add jobs next year, although at a slower pace than in 2019.

Jobless in November

* Catoosa County, Ga., 2.3%, down 0.3% from the previous month

* DeKalb County, Ala., 2.3%, up 0.1% from the previous month

* Dade County, Ga., 2.5%, down 0.3% from the previous month

* Walker County, Ga., 2.6%, down 0.3% from the previous month

* Jackson County, Ala., 2.8%, up 0.1% from the previous month

* Hamilton County, 3.0%, unchanged from the previous month

* Bradley County, 3.1%, down 0.1% from the previous month

* Coffee County, 3.1%, down 0.2% from the previous month

* Franklin County, 3.2%, unchanged from the previous month

* Chattooga County, Ga, 3.3%, down 0.4% from the previous month

* Polk County, 3.4%, unchanged from the previous month

* Whitfield County, 3.4%, down 0.9% from the previous month

* McMinn County, 3.5%, up 0.1% from the previous month

* Van Buren County, 3.8%, down 0.5% from the previous month

* Grundy County, 3.9%, down 0.2% from the previous month

* Meigs County, 3.9%, up 0.2% from the previous month

* Sequatchie County, 3.9%, down 0.2% from the previous month

* Marion County, 4.0% unchanged from the previous month

* Murray County, Ga., 4.3%, down 0.4% from the previous month

* Rhea County, 4.7%, up 0.1% from the previous month

* Bledsoe County, 5%, up 0.3% from the previous month

Sources: The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Georgia Department of Labor, Alabama Department of Labor

While the jobless rate in the Chattanooga region was the lowest in Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama, the biggest counties in Southeast Tennessee also had lower unemployment last month than the U.S. average, including Hamilton and Bradley counties.

The lowest jobless rate in metro Chattanooga this year was reached in April when the jobless rate fell to only 2.8%. But last month's 2.9% metro rate was the second lowest since 2001 in Chattanooga.

Over the past year, Chattanooga area employers have added a net 6,558 jobs in the six-county area. Since its peak at 10.2% a decade ago, the share of workers without jobs in metro Chattanooga has dropped by more than 70%.

Tennessee Career Centers are currently posting 192,940 job openings across the state, or more than 1.7 job openings for each of the 112,620 Tennesseans counted last month as unemployed and still looking for work.

"We're at full employment, which is one reason it will be harder to sustain the pace of growth we have had because it is harder to get workers in this strong economy," Humphreys said.

To the south in Carpet Capital of Dalton, the unemployment rate last month fell to 3.6% — an 18-year low and less than a third of the level of six years ago.

But just north of Chattanooga, unemployment rose last month in Bledsoe County to 5% — the second highest rate in all of Tennessee — and edged up to 4.7% in Rhea County — a full 1.5 percentage points higher than the statewide average.

Bledsoe County was hurt this year by the failure of Textile Corp. of America, which had promised to bring 1,000 jobs to Pikeville but ultimately led to the criminal indictment of the company's founders.

Rhea County was hurt in recent years by the closing of the Kayser RothGoodman Manufacturing and Fujifilm plants. But the Dayton area has been aided by the growth of La-Z-Boy and the new Nokian Tire plant.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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