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Photo by Dave Flessner / The McDonald's restaurant on Gunbarrel Road is among many eateries seeking to hire more workers.

Employment in metropolitan Chattanooga rose last month to its highest level since before the COVID-19 pandemic as the economy opened up this summer and Tennessee and Georgia limited jobless benefits to those still unemployed.

The jobless rate in the 6-county Chattanooga metropolitan area fell to 3.9% in July, down from 5.3% the previous month. The local jobless rate remained 1.8 percentage points below the comparable 5.7% non-seasonally adjusted U.S. jobless rate last month.

"We're still not back to the pre-pandemic job levels in all areas, but employment continues to grow and the economy is clearly improving across Tennessee," said Dr. Bill Fox, director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee.

In many industries, there are simply not enough workers to fill available jobs after many Baby Boomers opted to retire during the pandemic and some workers remain at home due to sickness or child care needs.

"We're seeing businesses limit their hours and having to limit some of the services they provide because they can't get enough help this summer," said Rob Mortensen, president of CEO of HopsitaltyTN, which represents restaurants, hotels and attractions across Tennessee. "We need more people in Tennessee so the campaign we put together with the Department of Tourist Development is trying to get more workers to move to Tennessee. But that may take some time."

Tennessee's state website for job seekers, Jobs4Tn.gov, listed 476,858 available jobs across Tennessee on Thursday, or more than three jobs for every one of the estimated 156,571 Tennesseans who were unemployed in July.

Last month, all but one of the state's 95 counties experienced lower unemployment in July, according to new data from the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

Unemployment fell among all counties in Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia and only three of the 21 area counties had jobless rates above the national average of 5.7% in July. The majority of area counties also had lower unemployment than the statewide averages in Tennessee and Georgia.

Jobless in July

Unemployment declined in all counties of Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia last month and remained below the national average rate in all but three of the 21 area counties.

* Dade County, Georgia, 2%, down from 2.9% in June

* Catoosa County, Georgia, 2.1%, down from 3.1% in June

* Walker County, Georgia, 2.4%, down from 3.5% in June

* Gordon County, Georgia, 2.7%, down from 3.5% in June

* Whitfield County, Georgia, 3.2%, down from 4.3% in June

* Chattooga County, Georgia, 3.8%, down from 5.4% in June

* Murray County, Georgia, 3.9%, down from 4.7% in June

* Franklin County, 4.4%, down from 5.5% in June

* Coffee County, 4.4%, down from 5.3% in June

* Hamilton County, 4.5%, down from 6.1% in June

* Polk County, 4.5%, down from 5.5% in June

* Bradley County, 4.6%, down from 5.6% in June

* McMinn County, 4.8%, down from 6.4% in June

* Cumberland County, 4.9, down from 6.5% in June

* Sequatchie County, 4.9%, down 6.3% in June

* Marion County, 5.1%, down 6.1% in June

* Meigs County, 5.2%, down from 6.7% in June

* Van Buren, 5.4%, down from 6.9%

* Rhea County, 5.9%, down from 6.9% in June

* Bledsoe County, 5.9%, down from 7.5% in June

* Grundy County, 6.6%, down from 8% in June

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

The jobless rate was lowest in the area in Dade County, Georgia, where the unemployment rate dropped to a mere 2% — the fourth-lowest rate among all of 152 counties in Georgia. Counties in Northwest Georgia, which has been propelled by the resurgence in floorcovering in and around Dalton's self-proclaimed Carpet Capital, had the lowest unemployment rates in the Chattanooga region.

Overall, employers in metro Chattanooga have restored all of the nearly 39,000 jobs that were shed in the spring of 2020 when the coronavirus first shut down many businesses and stores. But last month's employment in metro Chattanooga was more than 2,500 jobs below the employment level in July 2019.

Mortensen said most employers have boosted starting wages and many have offered signing bonuses to get more workers. But he said the extra pay isn't always bringing a lot more workers in or keeping them on the job.

Last month, Tennessee and Georgia quit offering the extra $300 a month supplemental jobless benefits provided to unemployed workers through the federal stimulus measures designed to shore up household balance sheets. State leaders worried that the extra federal benefits might be discouraging some unemployed persons from going back to work.

While more Chattanoogans were on the job in July than in the previous month, there wasn't any major increase in the labor force because of the change in benefits.

The Chattanooga website set up by the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce last December to recruit workers to the city was listing 18,079 available jobs on Thursday "from software to industrial, transportation to healthcare."

Jeremy Henderson, creative director of the Chattanooga Chamber, said Chattanooga Calling has already generated over 45,000 pageviews and 16,000 job searches and a related digital media campaign has generated nearly 1 million impressions and 10,000 clicks from those interested in finding out about Chattanooga.

"We could see that people in high-cost markets like New York City (people seriously considering moving) were definitely finding Chattanooga in their "best job ever" search," Henderson said.

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

 

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