The construction crane may have seemed like an endangered species in the last three years, but such cranes are beginning to swoop into Bradley County again.
With nearly $2 billion of new projects under way or on the drawing boards from Wacker Chemical, Whirlpool, Olin Corp. and Amazon.com, Cleveland had one of the fastest job-growth rates among metropolitan areas in the mid-South during the past year, new figures show.
The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce development reported Thursday that job gains in East Tennessee cities outpaced state and national gains since the Great Recession ended in 2009.
"Unemployment is still at historically high levels and likely to remain high for another couple of years," said Matt Murray, associate director at the University of Tennessee's Center for Business and Economic Research. "But Tennessee is producing jobs year-over-year again and the pace of those job additions is pretty darn impressive given where we have been for several years."
In metropolitan Chattanooga, employment grew by 7,670 jobs, or 3.3 percent, from November 2009 to November 2010. The metro area includes Hamilton, Marion and Sequatchie counties in Tennessee and Catoosa, Dade and Walker counties in Georgia.
November's jobless rate in the Chattanooga area was 8.5 percent, up 0.3 percent from the previous month but still down 1.5 percent from the start of the year.
In neighboring metro Cleveland, employment grew by 2,030 jobs, or nearly 4.2 percent, during the past year. Unemployment rose last month by 0.4 percent to 9.2 percent but still is well below the 10.6 percent rate at the start of 2010. The metro area includes Bradley and Polk counties.
"When I look at the success we've had this year and last with our recruitment efforts, I don't see how we can display anything but a big, wide smile," said Doug Berry, vice president of economic development for the Cleveland/Bradley County Chamber of Commerce. "There are still a lot of folks struggling to find work or a better job, but the momentum is definitely with us here in Southeast Tennessee."
Bradley County landed more than $800 million of new business investment and 550 new jobs during 2010, Berry said.
That followed the 2009 announcement of one of the state's biggest industrial prizes, the $1 billion Wacker polysilicon production plant with more than 600 jobs. That investment was expanded this year, and construction of what is now projected to be a nearly $1.5 billion plant began in early December, Berry said.
While new business investments in Southeast Tennessee are projected to add more than 2,500 more jobs in Hamilton and Bradley counties, many businesses still report mixed results.
"There are some companies that are just holding on; there are some that are having a hard time hanging on and are looking for new opportunities, and there are some that are doing very well," said Tim Spires, president of the Chattanooga Regional Manufacturers Association. "But in general, it is more that are having a struggle than the number that are doing really well."
Many unemployed workers are still waiting on the recovery.
Helen Scott Walker, who lost her job in the commercial real estate industry in January, said the job market "is very difficult," even with a college degree and 25 years' experience.
"In the past, there seemed to be more options for jobs. I'm willing to relocate and work different jobs and it's still very hard to find any work," Walker said Thursday while applying for jobs at the Tennessee Career Center.
Steven Verner, a 58-year-old unemployed truck driver who lives in Jasper, Tenn., said he checks websites every day for job prospects.
"I don't see the job market getting any better," he said.
But Murray expects Tennessee's job growth to rise faster in 2011, albeit at an historically sluggish pace for economic recoveries.
"This economy has put so many people out of work who are no longer viable in terms of the skills they bring to the labor market," he said.