By Bonna Johnson, The Tennessean
Think the labor market here is bad? Some residents of states with even higher unemployment, like North Carolina and Florida, are moving to Tennessee in hopes of having better luck finding jobs.
And some north Alabama workers are commuting to auto jobs here because work is even scarcer closer to their homes, even with recent mass layoffs at the General Motors assembly plant in Spring Hill.
In 2009, every Southeastern state lost jobs, with the housing collapse in Florida and a steep decline in manufacturing in Alabama and South Carolina sending unemployment rates in those three states zooming up more than in any other Southern states over the past year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Tennessee jobless rate peaked at 10.9 percent in December after five months of trending downward. The statewide rate didn't reach single digits.
With nearly 90,000 net job losses last year, Tennessee trailed Florida, Georgia and North Carolina in number of lost jobs in a 12-state Southern region. Tennessee had the fifth-highest unemployment rate among that group.
With Tennessee faring somewhat better than Florida, Tom Mikulski opted to move here after he was laid off from his management job at DHL shipping in Orlando, Fla., last June.
"Tourism and everything it supports was way down in Orlando, and opportunities in my field of transportation were not there," said Mikulski, who spent four weeks job hunting in Florida before moving inland to the Nashville area.
Nashville's cost of living figures to be lower than Orlando's, he said, and the labor market looked much healthier. In midsummer, Davidson County's unemployment rate was 9.2 percent, compared with Orlando's 11.1 percent at the time, and the jobless rate here remains better.
Meanwhile, Louisiana, Arkansas and Virginia have fared reasonably well by comparison, according to the latest employment statistics.
Post-Katrina rebuilding buoyed Louisiana, while proximity to government work in the nation's capital propped up the labor market in Virginia. Employment in Arkansas' cities remained relatively strong, as did the state's tourism and natural resources industries.
But the wide range of worrisome unemployment rates from single digits to 12 percent or more across the region illustrate that economic recovery from state to state this year could follow a bumpy and uneven path, economists said.
"Those states which have diverse economies will perform a lot better than the others," said economist Murat Arik, associate director of the Business and Economic Research Center at Middle Tennessee State University.
Among Southeastern states, Tennessee has the second-most-diverse economy, trailing only Missouri, and that puts the Volunteer State in a better position for long-term recovery, Arik said.
Diverse jobs offer hope
Variety was among job market factors that led Mikulski north from Florida to Tennessee.
Mikulski was mostly persuaded by Nashville's varied economy and thought he might be able to break into the city's large health-care industry, the sector that has performed best throughout the region.
Since October, he's been networking and reconnecting with people he'd previously known when he lived here in the late 1990s.
"I'm cautiously optimistic," he said, adding that even without a job he doesn't regret the move. "It's absolutely a better labor market here."
Since the start of the recession, Tennessee has lost some 160,000 jobs, the worst employment loss here since the Great Depression, said economist Bill Fox, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee.
Every sector saw job losses last year, except for health care and local government, and workers in urban as well as rural areas lost jobs, he said. "Not many have been able to avoid the pain of the recession," Fox said.
He viewed December's spike in unemployment as discouraging but also as a one-month fluke related to the partial closure of the General Motors auto plant in Spring Hill and workers flooding the labor market in search of holiday jobs that never materialized for many people.
As for 2010, Fox forecasts a slowly improving job market. "The trend will clearly be toward fewer job losses, and by early spring we'll be seeing job gains, if not sooner," Fox said.
Meanwhile, in South Carolina, which has grappled with a decade-long decay in manufacturing, jobless rates could continue to rise and may peak at 13 percent to
14 percent in late spring to early summer, said economist Don Schunk of Coastal Carolina University.
"Then only - very slowly - will it start to come back down," he said.
South Carolina had one of the highest jobless rates in the nation in December and the worst in the Southern region at 12.6 percent. Unemployment was at 11.8 percent in Florida, 11.2 percent in North Carolina and 11 percent in Alabama.
Virginia had the lowest rate for the month at 6.9 percent, and Louisiana's was 7.5 percent.
Competition is heavy
Jennifer Morgano lost work as a manager at a sports-marketing and hospitality firm in Charlotte, N.C., in late 2008. Last July, after eight months of not being able to find anything, she moved to the Nashville area, hoping a better labor market here would help her find work.
"Charlotte had taken such a hit with the banking industry, and I was hoping Nashville had not taken as much of a hit," said Morgano, 33, who had lived in Nashville previously.
Morgano hasn't found a job yet but said being able to live with family in Nolensville helps. "There do seem to be more people interviewing in Nashville," she said. "But there's also a lot of people looking. There's a lot of competition."
North Carolina lost 34,800 more jobs than Tennessee last year. Florida lost the most jobs in 2009, with a net decrease of 232,400. Arkansas saw the smallest decline in employment, shedding 20,800 jobs.
In Alabama, manufacturing has accounted for one-fifth of all employment, and weakness in that sector has pushed the unemployment rate there higher, said Ahmad Ijaz, economist at the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama. It peaked in December at 11 percent.
The recession started in December 2007, but Alabama didn't start shedding jobs until about six months later, Ijaz said. "When we started losing jobs, we lost them very rapidly," he said. He expects unemployment to reach a peak in his state in the next six months.
Florida sees no building
Like everywhere else, construction jobs took a big hit in Florida.
"Construction is ground zero in what has happened here," said Sean Snaith, economist at the University of Central Florida and director of the Institute for Economic Competitiveness.
He expects Florida's jobless rate to reach 12 percent in the next few months. "As bad or worse is how long it will take to come back down," he said. "Unemployment could remain in double digits until 2012, and the level of payrolls will not get back to pre-recession levels until 2014."
Construction isn't expected to bounce back anytime soon either.
Nationally, nearly 90 percent of contractors say the industry will not recover in 2010, although the federal stimulus spending has been one bright spot, according to a survey by the Associated General Contractors of America.
Fewer contractors plan to purchase construction equipment, and many doubt they'll hire new staff this year. The industry experienced near-record layoffs last year.
"As long as the construction industry remains mired in its own depression, broader economic and employment growth will continue to lag," said Stephen Sandherr, the association's chief executive.
Nearly all contractors surveyed in Florida said they laid off employees in 2009. Nearly three of every four in Tennessee said they laid off employees.
This year, 28 percent of Tennessee contractors said they would add workers, while 28 percent said they would shed workers. In Florida, 21 percent said they would add workers and another 21 percent said they would do layoffs. The rest said they didn't know or would make no changes in staff.
Florida registered the third-highest foreclosure rate last year, with nearly 6 percent of its housing units receiving at least one foreclosure filing during the year, according to RealtyTrac, a research firm. Georgia also was in the top 10 for states with the highest foreclosure rates in the country.