Tri-Cities economy adds 100 jobs in March, jobless rate at decades low

The Tri-Cities economy added 100 nonfarm jobs in March and private sector wages were up according to preliminary, non-adjusted numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The unemployment rate for the seven-county region dropped 0.1% to 3.8%. It has been under 4% for six of the past seven months. They are some of the lowest jobless rates the region has seen since 1990.

Employment was up in both March and the first quarter. Although improving, the year-over-year growth rate has slowly trended lower for nine straight months. Job creation is on a similar trend path. It has ebbed for the past six months. But the number of “we’re hiring” signs that have come out during the slow-growth expansion that took off in the summer of 2015 continues pulling additional workers off the sidelines.

There were 200 fewer nonfarm jobs during the first quarter than last year while first-quarter employment was up by 2,500 people and the labor force grew by 200.

Private sector wages were the strongest point in March’s labor market reports.

Average weekly wages for Kingsport-Bristol private sector workers were up for the first time this year. Workers in the four-county metro area saw their monthly weekly average decline 11 times last year as the region posted its first annual private sector wage decline since 2014. The weekly average last month was $640, up from $624 in February and $627 March last year.

Private sector workers in the three-county Johnson City MSA have fared better. Their weekly average wage has increased for 32 consecutive months following a 32-month decline before the labor market recovery took hold in that metro area. March’s weekly average was $722, up from $699 in February and $641 March last year.

Both Tri-Cities MSAs continue to have some of the lowest private sector wages in the state, although the performance of the Johnson City MSA private wage sector has moved it above Morristown MSA to a second-place ranking in Northeast Tennessee. Knoxville had the highest average in March at $892 a week. Nashville private sector workers were the best paid with an average of $898 a week.

Tri-Cities job seekers are in the best labor market they have seen for years.  There are abundant positions open, wages and the labor force are increasing. March’s labor force was at a 49-month high. But none of this means the quality of many of the new jobs or the benefits that go with them are what job seekers would like to see. Underemployment is still an issue and although the economy is improving some workers are still getting by but not getting ahead.

For example, the recent press release for management downsizing at Ballad Heath included a notice that the newly merged system is looking to fill more than 700 open jobs. Most are in the clinical and nursing sectors.

At the same time, there’s the reality that the local economy is adding more low-paying than high paying jobs. Using $50,000 a year as a benchmark for a sustainable living for a household for three, the local economy creates six jobs that pay less than for every one $50,000-a-year or over job. Those numbers come from the BLS and state Department of Employment and Workforce Development’s hot job creation list for the Tri-Cities area.

Here’s how area city and county unemployment rates looked in March:

Bristol – 3.7%.

Johnson City – 3.4%.

Kingsport – 4%.

Carter Co. – 4.1%

Greene Co. – 4.2%.

Hawkins Co. – 4%.

Johnson Co. – 3.7%.

Sullivan Co. – 3.7%.

Unicoi Co.  – 4.9%.

Washington Co. 3.5%.

Statewide 82 of Tennessee’s 95 counties saw lower unemployment rates in March. Williamson County once again had the lowest jobless rate in the state – 2.5%.

Tennessee’s March unemployment rate was 3.4%, and the national rate was 4.1%.