Johnson City leads Tri-Cities jobs, employment, labor force growth

May was the best job creation month this year, ditto for city-level employment and labor force gains.

Employment was up by 415 people from last year in the twin cities of Bristol, Va., and Bristol, Tenn. It was up by 704 people in Kingsport. Johnson City led the region with a gain of 1,224.

The Twin Cities’ labor force was up by 24 people from last year. Johnson City was up 805, and Kingsport gained 487 people.

The labor force is getting new attention for two reasons.

  • The region continues to battle a labor shortage and a labor force participation rate about 10 points below the state and national levels.
  • Although not perfect, labor force data offers additional insight into the region’s population growth.

Johnson City leads the region in labor force growth

So far, city labor force data looks a lot like the job creation pattern and the metro area labor force. The Johnson City metro area’s labor market recovered from the pandemic first and has been adding the largest share of new jobs. Kingsport-Bristol reached recovery status in May, but it lags the new job creation and labor force growth rates.

Johnson City is the only example of city-level labor force growth compared to pre-pandemic levels. The Twin Cities’ labor force is down by 155 people. Kingsport is down 434 people. Johnson City’s Its labor force is up 804 from the pre-pandemic benchmark.

Labor force numbers are only a small indication of what’s happening in the broader demographic. Good official population demographics data won’t begin showing up until next year. It’s not that some of that information doesn’t exist. It’s just not compiled and publicly available.

Here’s what has piqued locals’ interest in that part of the labor market. While a growing population is good news, a declining labor force is another matter. In the past, much of the area’s growth-focused on affordable housing, low taxes, and quality of life. Affordability has been a declining issue and Washington Co. reached a level during first quarter where the average worker could not qualify to buy a median-priced home. And Sullivan Co.’s affordability index has declined for 15 straight quarters. Average payments on median-priced homes in Sullivan are 50% higher than last year. In Washington Co. they are up 35%.

Moving forward, jobs and wages will have an increasing influence on the housing market.

One persistent concern is most of the out-of-state new residents are retirees. Johnson City had numbers for new residents that included age. It shows that 36% of those who set up households during the pandemic surge were Millennials. You can find that report by CLICKING HERE

Another element of the data sags comes from MoveToKingsport.com. Its data show over two-thirds of home buyers were already area residents. That doesn’t speak to the retiree or labor force questions, but it’s a reality check on sales that points to both local organic growth and new residents.

Balancing the population growth issue

A balancing factor to monthly labor force numbers in the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports is the number of live births vs. the number of deaths and those who leave for greener pastures. Back-of-the-envelope calculations show that the Tri-Cities must attract about 34 new residents daily to sustain its 2020 population levels.

The Tri-Cities also has a rapidly aging population. More back-of-the-envelope calculations point to about 30 area residents turning 70 every day. That means many workers are simply aging out of the labor force.

The region’s death rate has been higher than the birth rate for a decade, so the only population growth has been from people relocating from out of the area or out of state. Most of them have been from the South, according to Census reports.

The already high local death rate increased during the pandemic, and the birth rate declined. There are early indicators that the national fertility numbers are picking up a little. Local data isn’t available yet.

What is available is the death rate is not significantly decreasing.






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