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Employment continues to fall in Tri-Cities, signaling weak economy

Nathan Baker • May 22, 2014 at 11:15 AM

Employment in the Tri-Cities declined again in the first quarter of 2014, continuing a downward trend the region has seen since the spring of 2012.

According to Steb Hipple, East Tennessee State University economics professor and research associate for the college's Bureau of Business and Economic Research, regional job levels were 221,514 during the January to March period, 0.7 percent lower than the same period in 2013.

Unemployment in the area fell 16.5 percent from last year, from 7.9 percent to 6.8 percent, but Hipple pointed to the increasing numbers of workers withdrawing from the labor force as the cause of the decline, which he said was an indication of weakness in the jobs market.

According to Hipple, employment gains were reported in the industries of professional and business services, leisure and hospitality, transport and utilities, retail trade, wholesale trade and finance.

The government, manufacturing and education and health services sectors reported losses, and employment was unchanged in construction and information services.

According to Hipple's data, employment was 0.5 percent higher than the same quarter last year in Bristol, to 30,404, but fell 1.2 percent, to 45,313, in Kingsport and 1.5 percent, to 54,043, in Johnson City.

Hipple said each city matched the regional pattern of large numbers of unemployed workers dropping out of the labor market, reducing unemployment figures, again, he stressed, a sign of weakness in the economy.

As has been the case for the last two years, the local economy has weakened as the national economy shows growth.

The employment grew 1.5 percent in the first part of the year nationally, the 10th consecutive quarter of employment growth, and the best job creation performance in five quarters, Hipple said.

The economist did offer a glimmer of positivity for the region's economic outlook, noting that the local job losses slowed in the first part of 2014, compared to a 2.4 percent decrease during the whole of 2013.

"Perhaps we will soon see the bottom of this employment contraction in the local economy," Hipple wrote in his report, adding that the stronger U.S. economy may provide a boost locally as well.

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