Tri-Cities, Johnson City and county jobless rates drop to new lows, economy continues adding jobs

The Tri-Cities economy continued adding non-farm jobs in September while the number of people employed was the highest since January 2011. The seven-county region’s 3.3% unemployment rate was the lowest since 1990. To find a lower rate you have to do a deep dive in the Bureau of Labor Statistics archive.


The region has added an average of 170 jobs a month when compared to last year’s totals. From a trends perspective, September’s three-month moving average total put the region back to the level it was at in June.

Comparing September’s strong report with pre-recession benchmarks show the number of nonfarm jobs is down 2,200. Employment is down by 14,342, and the labor force is down 19,498. Those pre-recession comparisons are down for several reasons. The number of jobs is the most obvious, but the employment and labor force numbers are also dramatically affected by the region’s rapidly aging population. The local labor force participation rate has dropped to a high of 59% in Washington County to a low of 43.9% in Johnson County. Sullivan County’s rate is 54%. An average of 16 people a week reach the age of 65 in the region.

Private sector wages continued trending higher in the three-county Johnson City Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) and although the average has begun to turn higher wages in the four-county Kingsport-Bristol MSA are still below last year’s average.

The September weekly average in the Johnson City metro area was $690.32, up 11.9% from last year. September was the first time since the recession when the Johnson City average was higher than the Morristown MSA. Private sector workers in Kingsport-Bristol had a $634.74 weekly average, 0.9% lower than September last year.

Although there has been private sector wage improvement in half of the Tri-Cities’ two metro regions this year, wage stagnation and underemployment continue to be obstacles to economic recovery. Compared to other state metro areas Kingsport has the second lowest average private sector wage while Johnson City ranked 7t and second highest in Northeast Tennessee.

Knoxville has the highest average private sector wage in Tennessee – $928 a week. That’s $19 a week more than the U.S. average.

City and County unemployment rates in September were:

Bristol – 3.1%, down 0.8%.

Johnson City – 2.8%, down 0.9%.

Kingsport – 3.4%, down 0.7%.

Carter Co. – 3.4%, down 1%.

Greene Co. 3.8%, down 0.6%.

Hawkins Co. 3.4% down 0.6%

Johnson Co. 2.9%, down 0.7%.

Sullivan Co. – 3.2%, down 0.6%.

Unicoi Co. – 4.2%, down 1%.

Washington Co. – 3%, down 0.8%.

September reports are preliminary and not seasonally adjusted.

Tri-Cities employment and labor force trend lines (left chart) and metro area weekly private sector wage. Click on chart renders a larger file.