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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Gov. Bill Lee speaks at a podium inside of Cleveland High School's library during a visit on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Tenn.

The number of Tennesseans filing initial claims for unemployment rose again last week, but Gov. Bill Lee said Thursday he hopes to aid jobless workers gain more employable skills and get back to work through the state's program to provide free tuition for the first two years of college.

Jobless benefits for many of the 913,581 Tennesseans who have filed for unemployment this year will run out on the day after Christmas as the federal aid provided under the CARES act expires. Already, those still getting jobless benefits averaged only $279.56 in benefit payments last year, or less than a third of what jobless persons were paid until a $600-a-week federal supplement ran out at the end of July.

Lee announced Thursday the state will be helping unemployed Tennesseans earn skills toward long-term employment through its "Reconnect to Workforce" partnership, which former Gov. Bill Haslam established to provide last dollar payments to ensure free tuition for 2-year colleges.

"As federal unemployment benefits end, we want to ensure Tennesseans have the tools needed to skill up and gain long-term employment," Lee said. "There are over 250,000 available jobs in Tennessee and this partnership will remove barriers so Tennesseans across our state can obtain the skills needed to acquire a high-quality job."

Tennessee Reconnect offers people without a bachelor's degree tuition-free educations at community or technical colleges by providing scholarships. Last year, Lee said people from high-need populations made up a significant portion of recipients, with 58% having dependents and nearly 70% earning under $50,000.

More than 2,000 students were awarded certificates or degrees under the program last year.

The retraining effort comes as federal unemployment benefits funded by the CARES Act will expire as many claimants reach the maximum 39 weeks of payments soon. The last day to claim these federal benefits in on December 26.

The Tennessee Higher Education Commission is working with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development on the program.

On Thursday, Tennessee Career Centers listed 249,454 open jobs on the state's website, www.jobs4TN.gov, and Tennessee Labor Commissioner Jeff McCord said not all open jobs are listed on the state web site.

But even with so many available jobs, the number of initial claims filed by newly laid off workers in Tennessee still rose last week to 7,221, up from 6,992 the previous week. New jobless claims filed last week included 317 claims in Hamilton County, 123 in Bradley county and 42 in McMinn county.

Despite the weekly increase in jobless claims, the number of initial claims filed by unemployed Tennesseans last week was only 6.2% of the record high of 116,141 new claims filed in the first week in April as the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of Tennessee's economy.

Nationwide, the number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits fell last week to 709,000, a still-high level but the lowest figure since March and a further sign that the job market might be slowly healing.

As colder weather sets in and fear of the virus escalates, however, consumers may turn more cautious about traveling, shopping, dining out and visiting gyms, barber shops and retailers. Companies in many sectors could cut jobs or workers' hours. In recent days, the virus' resurgence has triggered tighter restrictions on businesses, mostly restaurants and bars.

"The risk may be for more layoffs as coronavirus cases surge and some states impose restrictions on activity," said Nancy Vanden Houten, an economist at the forecasting firm Oxford Economics.

Last week's count of new applications for unemployment benefits was down from 757,000 the previous week, the Labor Department said Thursday. The still-elevated figure shows that eight months after the pandemic flattened the economy, many employers are still slashing jobs.

The number of people who are continuing to receive traditional unemployment benefits fell to 6.8 million, the government said, from 7.2 million. In Tennessee, the number of continuing claims fell for the 26th consecutive week to 58,298 — the lowest ongoing level since March.

That suggests that more Americans are finding jobs and no longer receiving unemployment aid. But it also indicates that many jobless people have used up their state unemployment aid — which typically expires after six months — and have transitioned to a federal extended benefits program that lasts 13 more weeks.

— Compiled by Dave Flessner

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