Bradley County’s latest unemployment rate arguably could be seen as the first time in years that a rise in local joblessness is a cause for celebration.
That’s because it’s a matter of perspective.
In keeping with seasonal trends, the January mark for workers without a job rose to 6.2 percent. The increase was expected. What came as a surprise — a pleasant surprise among those who monitor the employment landscape — was that the jump wasn’t much of a jump at all. Rather, it was more of a little skip ... by one-tenths of 1 percent.
In December, Bradley County’s rate was 6.1. The low mark — the smallest in Bradley County in at least five years — was expected to rise potentially by as much as a full percentage point or more in January, as retailers began laying off temporary workers who came on board in November and December to accommodate the holiday rush.
But it didn’t happen; at least, not yet.
Larry Green, labor market analyst who keeps a close eye on Southeast Tennessee worker numbers for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, believes the favorable numbers for the year’s coldest month could be due to a handful of reasons.
A few include:
n Seasonal hiring of temporary workers by Bradley County retailers for increased Christmas shopping may have been less than previously thought because apparently the month of January saw fewer layoffs than normal.
- Retailers may have given existing employees the chance to work extra hours in November and December in order to boost their paychecks, thereby minimizing the need for temporary hiring and lessening the number who would lose those jobs in January. According to Green, this has become more of a trend by local employers over the past few years.
- Due to improving business, some retailers may have opted to keep more of their temporary help as opposed to laying them off once the Christmas shopping season had ended.
Those reasons help explain the retail trades industry. But, the employment picture was also strong in other categories, Green explained. Most notably, these include private education and the health services industry, which includes nursing homes and private schools; leisure and hospitality, which refers to the tourism industry and includes restaurants, hotels and motels; and state government hiring within local operations.
On the flip side, hiring was down for January — as expected — in construction and manufacturing, but these declines were small, Green explained.
“That’s [6.2 percent] a very good rate considering this time of year and the [traditional] seasonal trend,” Green cited. “Generally, we’re seeing a big jump [in unemployment in January] because of layoffs in retail trade. But in Bradley County, there wasn’t a great deal of layoffs in retail trade.”
Whether it’s because of less hiring for the Christmas season, more hours for permanent workers or employers deciding to keep temporary help on board remains to be seen. Department of Labor data can’t answer those questions — but what should answer them is time.
“That will play out over the next couple of months when we look at retail trade to see if there seemingly is a permanent increase in employment,” Green said. “We’ll just have to watch and see how that goes.”
The state employment official is keeping his fingers crossed because more and more indicators are pointing in favor of a strengthening Bradley County economy which Chamber of Commerce and local government strategists believe was never damaged as badly as other areas of the state and country by the Great Recession.
Bradley County’s 6.2 jobless tally easily betters the Tennessee mark of 7.2 percent and the U.S. figure of 6.6. Statewide, the local mark lands Bradley County in a three-way tie with Coffee and Washington counties as having the 11th lowest rate of Tennessee’s 95 counties.
It also sustains Bradley County as the Southeast Tennessee leader for low unemployment numbers. As the local mark has done now for the past year, the Bradley rate remained lower than its metropolitan neighbor to the southwest. Chattanooga and Hamilton County reported a jobless count of 7.1 percent, which was a drop from the December rate of 7.2.
Rates among other nearby county jurisdictions included Marion, 9.5 percent, up from 8.7 in December; McMinn, 7.9, down from 8.1; Meigs, 9.3, up from 8.9 Monroe, 9.5, up from 9.3; Polk, 9.7, up from 9.3; and Rhea, 9.9, which remained the same.
In Southeast Tennessee, some numbers are a little up and some are a little down, but none came in at 10 percent or higher. For January, that’s a good sign, state department officials believe.
Surprisingly enough for the midwinter transition, the jobless story was positive for plenty of other Tennessee counties. Statewide, 34 jurisdictions showed a decrease in joblessness, 49 reported an increase and 12 remained the same.
Also statewide, the unemployment rate came in at less than 5 percent in two counties. It ranged from 5 to 9.9 percent in 64 counties, and was 10 percent or greater in 29 counties. No counties in Tennessee reported numbers of 20 percent or higher.
Tennessee’s lowest jobless marks were found in Williamson County, 4.5 percent; Lincoln, 4.9; Cannon, 5.1; Davidson, Sumner, Rutherford and Wilson, 5.3; and Moore, Knox and Cheatham, 5.5.
The state’s highest figures came in Scott County, 15.9 percent; Pickett, 13.2; Lauderdale, 12.3; Stewart, 12; McNairy and Gibson, 11.6; Van Buren, 11.5; Carroll, 11.3; Wayne, 11.2; and Haywood, 10.9.
In December 2012, Bradley County reported an unemployment rate of 7.1 percent. The number shot up to 8 percent in January 2013, Green noted.
“Last January [in 2013], the Bradley County unemployment rate was 8 percent,” he said. “So with January  coming in a 6.2 percent, we’re happy to have a rate like that.”
If Bradley County can avoid unplanned layoffs or business closures, its chances for seeing a positive rate in February remain strong. That’s because the month of February — based on seasonal trends — normally follows the January rate closely, Green said.
Another factor at play in the local employment picture is the local community’s diversity.
“One of Bradley County’s strengths is its balance between manufacturing and nonmanufacturing [categories],” Green said. “Bradley is not overly reliant on either one.”
Subsequently, manufacturing layoffs are often offset by strong hiring among nonmanufacturing businesses, and vice-versa, he explained.
“February is normally pretty stable and it hangs in there at about the January rate,” Green offered. “We don’t normally see much fluctuation. But then again, we thought January would have a lot of fluctuation [from December]. That’s how well you can predict these things sometimes.”
For January, Bradley County reported a total workforce of 48,630. Of this number, 45,620 reported having jobs, leaving a workless balance of 3,010.