NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — Job and labor force growth since 2019 has been much stronger in the Johnson City metro area than the adjacent Kingsport-Bristol metro, but one local leader said the combined totals are much more important than local comparisons.

The Johnson City metro area’s workforce has 451 more people than it did exactly three years ago — a stark contrast to the Kingsport-Bristol metro just to the north, where 6,260 fewer people are in the workforce than there were three years ago. There are 584 more people employed in the Johnson City metro than there were three years ago, but 6,063 fewer employed in the Kingsport metro.

Those figures represent a 4.4% decline in the Kingsport-Bristol metro’s workforce from May 2019 to May 2022. Johnson City’s workforce grew, barely, by 0.5% over the same period according to numbers from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development (TDOL).

The Johnson City metro area has experienced significantly stronger job growth over the past year than Kingsport-Bristol’s metro. (WJHL photo)

Will Barrett is the CEO of Bank of Tennessee and a board member of both the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership and the new regional economic development hub. NETREP covers the Johnson City metropolitan statistical area (MSA) counties of Washington, Carter and Unicoi and the new hub covers Sullivan, Hawkins, Johnson, Greene and Hancock as well.

Barrett said workforce availability and training is a key to communities’ growth and that the numbers concern him.

“Obviously that number on a combined basis (both MSAs) even over a three-year period is going the opposite direction we want it to go,” Barrett said. “I’d say there’s a pretty big correlation between workforce and regional prosperity.”

The contrast has also held over the past year as pandemic recovery has continued, with Johnson City’s metro posting 3.6% growth in its labor force compared to a 0.4% rise in Kingsport-Bristol. The Kingsport-Bristol MSA includes Sullivan and Hawkins counties in Tennessee as well as Washington and Scott counties in Virginia and the city of Bristol, Va.

Both metropolitan statistical areas (MSA) have unemployment rates almost identical to what they were in May 2019, with Kingsport-Bristol exactly the same at 3.4% and Johnson City down a tad from 3.5% to 3.3%.

The contrast correlates to some degree with population changes, as Washington County posted the strongest growth in the 2020 census.

Washington is the only county among the five with more in the workforce than three years ago. It also has a younger population than any of the other counties.

Because the unemployment rates are very similar over time, the changes in number of people employed have tracked closely with the labor force. The Johnson City MSA has 4,118 more people working than it did a year ago, equating to job growth of 4.7%. The total employed in May 2022 was 91,274.

The Kingsport-Bristol metro’s one-year change shows job growth of 1.6%, about a third the rate of Johnson City’s MSA, with a total of 2,022 more jobs.

Barrett said it’s most effective to look at the overall combined area — one of the reasons, he said, that the economic development hub was formed earlier this year after several years of discussions. He said the raw job numbers are based on where people live, not where they work, and that Northeast Tennesseans and Southwest Virginians often travel across county and state lines for work.

“There’s a lot of workforce development I think could take place both to get people back into the workforce, and if there’s a functional mismatch or sector mismatch in the workforce, you’re getting them trained up to move to a different sector in the economy,” Barrett said.

In other words, the fact that Sullivan County’s labor force of 70,134 is down almost 3,000 from three years ago, while Washington County’s total of 62,617 is up by 727 is less important than the combined numbers of those two large counties and the rest of both metros.

Added all together, those numbers show a labor force decline of almost 6,000 compared to three years ago, from 236,010 to 230,201. That’s a drop of 2.5% and has been matched by the drop in total number of people employed, which has declined 2.4%, from 227,940 in May 2019 to 222,461 last month.

“I think what this does is it raises the warning bell, the red flag that we have our work cut out for us,” Barrett said. “We’re not going in the right direction even through the pandemic.”

How about the rest of the state?

Moving outside the metro and combined areas, the data show that Northeast Tennessee is faring worse than both the state as a whole and the country.

Job growth over the past three years is lower in Northeast Tennessee than both the U.S. and statewide. (WJHL photo)

Compared to the 2.5% labor force decline in the combined Northeast Tennessee MSAs, the statewide labor force has grown slightly from its May 2019 total of 3,363,300 to 3,409,034 last month. That’s a 1.3% increase. The total number employed is up 1.0% to 3,293,464.

Those numbers are a good bit better than the regional ones, but just as interestingly, they completely evaporate if labor force and job growth in the Nashville MSA.

Without the labor force increase of 60,000 and the job growth of 55,000 there, the rest of Tennessee would have about 14,000 fewer people in the labor force and about 22,000 fewer jobs than it did three years ago.

Nationally, the labor force was 0.9% larger last month than it was in May 2019, and the number of people working was also 0.9% higher.

Barrett said recent data and other evidence that a lot of people have begun moving into the region — at least compared to the stagnant growth of 2010-2020 — shouldn’t lull people into a fall sense of security that “everything is ok.”

“People might think the growth we are seeing has shown that we’re kind of the undiscovered part of the state and the country and that everyone is moving here,” Barrett said. “In fact, with these workforce numbers it shows you that while recently we’ve picked up a little bit more steam, we still have an issue that we need to solve long term.”