Will the Tri-Cities have enough workers for its open jobs?

November’s Tri-Cities unemployment rate held at a record low for the third straight month. The economy continued adding jobs at a slower rate, and private sector wages increased.

On the surface, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) numbers paint a picture of a strong local labor market. In fact, it’s beginning to look like there too many jobs and not enough workers to grow and sustain the vibrant economy everyone keeps talking about.

Almost every place you see “we’re hiring” signs.

A check of the Tennessee Jobs database found 871 Tri-Cities listings the last week of December – 431 in the three-county Johnson City Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) and 440 in the four-county Kingsport-Bristol MSA.

But there’s another side to the BLS numbers. It’s a good sign that the number of people in labor force is trending higher while the jobless rate is dropping. But the process is painfully slow, and it faces a strong demographic headwind. Meanwhile, the labor force participation rate is at a historic low point. The share of working-age Tri-Cities residents in the labor force was 54.6% in the most current Census estimate. Conditions are better in some counties than others. Washington Co. VA has the highest rate – 61.1% – while Unicoi Co. comes in at 49.8%. Most counties are closer to the regional rate.

The Tri-Cities economy continues to add jobs but the growth rate trend has declined for three months.

That low participation rate is one reason the unemployment rate is at record levels. It’s low for several reasons. One is our population is aging and getting progressively older every day. Workers are retiring or being shoved into retirement by employers looking to lower labor costs. Given current conditions, there won’t be any significant relief from that for a decade or so. Another is technology, and higher employer standards are increasing faster than the region’s efforts to produce a better-trained labor force. There’s also an argument that some employers set higher requirements than the open jobs require.

The challenge facing the region is: If you have less labor, you’re going to have less growth unless it’s augmented with technology or higher productivity. And productivity – as measured by per capita gross domestic product – is not growing. It’s down $3,719 from the previous high in Kingsport-Bristol and $1,917 in the Johnson City MSA.

But even with that caveat, November’s Tri-Cities labor market report looks pretty good. But that’s where the next thorny issue pops up. The growth is not evenly distributed.

Employers in the seven-county region have averaged adding 73 nonfarm jobs a month so far, this year.  Good news for sure. But that growth is not spread out evenly across the region. Most of it is happening in the Johnson City MSA.

So far, this year the Johnson City MSA’s economy has been adding an average of 91 new nonfarm jobs a month. The reason the regional growth is lower is Kingsport-Bristol has been losing an average of 18 jobs a month. And even with the gains that have been made the region had 1,400 fewer nonfarm jobs than it did in November 2007.

Employment, the other half of the monthly BLS labor market reports, tells a similar story. It stood at a preliminary, non-adjusted total of 219,450 in November, 3,762 more than November last year and 17,888 fewer than the pre-recession high. The unemployment rate was 3.7% mainly because there are 22,326 fewer people in the labor force than there were at the pre-recession high.

In some ways, a strong labor market where jobs go unfilled is just as bad as one where workers can’t find a job. But it does set the stage for another thing the region needs – population growth. If there are enough good jobs, it will attract new residents to help balance the region’s stagnant population base.

Here is drilled-down capsule version of how November’s jobs and employment reports looked for the region. All comparisons are November year-over-year.


Nonfarm jobs – up 0.9% It’s noteworthy that the metro area had 400 more nonfarm jobs than it did before the recession.

Employment –  up 2.7%. Employment is down 8,872 from the pre-recession high.

Unemployment rate – 3.7%.

Average private sector weekly wage – $674.58, up 9%.


Nonfarm jobs – down 0.1%. There were 1,400 fewer nonfarm jobs than before the recession.

Employment – up 1.2%. There were 7,986 fewer employed people than before the recession.

Unemployment rate – 3.7%.

Average private sector weekly wage – $648, up 0.7%. November was the first month this year that the average weekly wage average wage increased.

City-County November unemployment rates.

BRISTOL TN – 3.4%, up 0.2%

JOHNSON CITY – 3.4%, up 0.5%

KINGSPORT – 3.8%, up 0.4%.

CARTER Co – 3.9%, up 0.4%

GREENE Co – 3.7%, down 0.2%

JOHNSON Co – 3.4%, up 0.4%

HAWKINS Co – 3.8%, up 0.3%.

SULLIVAN Co – 3.6%, up 0.3%

UNICOI Co – 4.5%, up 0.3%

WASHINGTON Co – 3.4%, up 0.3%

Williamson and Davidson counties had November’s lowest unemployment rates – 2.5%.

Lauderdale Co. had the highest – 5.5%.

Eight of the 10 lowest county unemployment rates in November were in Middle Tennessee, with Knox and Sevier counties in East Tennessee rounding out the list of the top 10 lowest rates in the state. All counties in the top 10 had a rate below 3%, and unemployment rates in 87 Tennessee counties remained under 5%.

Tennessee’s rate was 3.1%, and the U.S. rate was 4.1%.

November’s U-6 unemployment rate was 8%, up 0.1. That’s the lowest rate since 2001.

The U-6 unemployment rate counts not only people without work seeking full-time employment, but also counts “marginally attached workers and those working part-time for economic reasons.” Some of these part-time workers counted as employed by U-3 rate could be working as little as an hour a week. And the “marginally attached workers” include those who have gotten discouraged and stopped looking, but still, want to work.

The U-6 rate is not available at the local level.



2 replies

  1. Population Growth. Everyone needs this. Churches, civic clubs, chamber of commerce, medical and professional services, public utility providers, City and county government, schools, car dealers, newspapers, restaurants, downtown merchants, industry, and many more.

    PLEASE LIST those that don’t need more human capital to benefit and grow.

    1. ?


  1. Where the Tri-Cities jobs are and what job are in demand – Core Data