Tri-Cities’ economic recovery has a soft spot

The preliminary net annual jobs total sank to a two-decade low in 2020

The Tri-Cities economy is stirring.

Builders, Realtors, and lenders are scrambling to keep up with the housing demand. Local retail home improvement firms followed the national model in their own boom cycle. Nationwide it grew by $24 billion, up 17% from 2019. Retail and restaurants are seeing more traffic. The January unemployment rate dropped to 5.5%. And employers had a little over 6,000 job openings in February.

But there is a soft spot in this recovery. Some are calling it the labor market’s restructuring to a new norm.


Preliminary non-adjusted Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS) reports show there were 8,000 fewer Tri-Cities jobs in January than January last year.

There were 7,448 fewer people employed in the seven-county Tri-Cities metro area. And the labor force was down by almost 5,000 from last year.

The jobs count comes from a payroll survey of about 30% of the federal and private firms in the U.S. It’s designed to measure employment, hours, and earnings in nonfarm payroll employment.

The employment count comes from a survey of about 60,000 households. It’s designed to measure the labor force status of the civilian noninstitutional population with demographic detail. The most recognized product from the survey is the monthly (U3) monthly unemployment report.


When COVID crashed the economy in April last year, the local economy shed 18,500 in one month. There was a bounce-back in May and June that was comparable to the national recovery. But it ran out of gas in August and settled into a slow-growth trend through the end of the year.

January’s jobs reports show the local economy has clawed back about 13,000 of those jobs lost in April.


A comparison of the annual average job total shows a decline of 3.9% (7,800 jobs) from 2019. Last year’s total was a two-decade low.

Job sector growth was also weak. Some of that can be written off the region’s rapidly aging population. Another factor is the region’s transformation from a manufacturing-based labor market to one that is concentrated on health care, education, and services.

Preliminary non-adjusted totals show only three sectors added jobs in 2020. Three others were flat. The remaining nine sectors had fewer jobs than they did in 2019.

The growth star belongs to the professional and business services sector. It added 900 jobs that included accountants, chief executives, financial analysts, human resources managers, operations and research analysts, production, purchasing, and sales managers, statisticians, and research analysts.

Transportation and warehousing utilities had a net job gain of 100. So did the wholesale trade.

Federal government jobs and financial activities were flat.

Job sectors losses were:

Mining and construction – down 600.

Manufacturing – down 1,700

Retail trade – down 700

Information – down 200

Education and health services – down 1,500

Leisure and hospitality – down 2,900

Other services – down 400

State government – down 300

Local government – down 600


In February, the state jobs website Jobs4TN reported a little over 6,000 jobs were open in the region.

Johnson City MSA employers had 2,396 openings. There 26,907 candidates for those jobs. That’s a supply and demand ratio of 11.23 candidates available per job opening.

Top employers by the number of job openings in the MSA that includes Carter, Washington, and Unicoi counties were:

  • Food City – 103
  • ETSU – 84
  • Ballad Health – 43
  • Frontier Health – 34
  • Mountain Empire Oil Co. – 34

Employers in the NE Tenn. counties (Hawkins and Sullivan) of the Kingsport-Bristol MSA had 3,623 job openings last month. There were 27,854 candidates for those openings making the supply and demand ratio 7.59 candidates available per job opening.

Top employers by the number of job openings.

  • Food City – 188
  • Ballad Health – 102
  • Eastman Chemical Co – 82
  • McDonald’s Corp. – 82
  • CVS Health – 60

February’s local labor market reports – and data revisions – will be available after the first of the month.

Don Fenley is a seasoned Tri-Cities journalist specializing in housing, economic and demographic trends. The Times-News carries his reports on the Sunday Money Page. He is also a frequent contributor to Business Matters on WETS and the Business Journal of the Tri-Cities’ print and electronic editions. Detailed or specific reports are available by contacting him at djfenley@gmail.com.  

© 2021 donfenley.com. All rights reserved.



Categories: LABOR MARKET

2 replies

  1. I wanted to build a home in Kingsport; bought the lot, hired the architect, completed the design, but then the building prices zoomed while my portfolio headed south, so I’m waiting it out. I think I’ll have to wait 2 years.


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