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Rural Tennessee Unemployment Continues to Soar

While it’s no secret economic times are tough this year all across the Volunteer State, job seekers living in West Tennessee are having an especially difficult time finding and keeping work, according to the latest government unemployment statistics.

As of the end of October, unemployment rates in counties from the Mississippi River to just west of Nashville hovered in the high teens, in some cases pushing 19 percent, according to recent numbers from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

With the exception of Shelby, Montgomery and Dickson Counties, the unemployment rate in every county west of Nashville meets or surpasses the statewide rate of 10.5 percent. Tennessee-wide unemployment was 6.9 percent for the same period last year.

“I think that a lot of the hit that we take has been the erosion of the manufacturing base,” said state Sen. Lowe Finney, a Jackson Democrat.

Several plants have closed or announced layoffs in the past year, including Cub Cadet in Brownsville, a lawn mower plant where 480 full time and seasonal workers lost their jobs when the facility closed in July. Haywood County’s unemployment rate now checks in at 17.9 percent.

Tennessee’s unemployment rate is just above the nation’s 10.2 percent rate for October. Since then, the national numbers dropped to 10 percent in November, though state numbers are not yet available.

Lauderdale County’s unemployment rate was 18.9 percent, the highest in the state and a 4.2 percent increase from October 2008.

Henderson County ranks at 17.6 percent and Carroll County at 17.3 percent.

While each western county struggles with unemployment, those home to larger population centers are faring better, although still significantly worse than the state rates from last year. The rate in Shelby County is 10.2 percent and Madison County is 10.5 percent.

That isn’t to say times are flush for job-hunters in regions east of Nashville. Hancock County unemployment hit 18 percent and Scott County landed at 17.8 percent, and most other counties have unemployment rates in low teens or below.

While Finney said he’s encouraged by the recent drop in the national unemployment rate, he says Tennesseans ought not to expect the picture to brighten anytime soon; the state’s employment numbers tend to lag six months behind.

“If other parts of the country experience good news, hopefully that means a few months from now, Tennessee will experience the same thing,” he said.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, predicts it’ll take even longer than that before unemployment turns around.

A former chairman for the Council of State Governments’ Economic Development Committee for the Southern Legislative Conference, Norris says the stimulus hasn’t yet kicked in the way state officials expected, which he says means it’ll take still more time to see positive changes.

“I would say it’s probably not likely we’ll be able to see any appreciable improvement until the third quarter of 2010 at the earliest,” he said.