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State braces for long recovery, economist says

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Jim Burton, dean of the Jennings A. Jones College of Business at MTSU, Aubrey Harwell, chairholder of the Jennings A. Jones Chair of Excellence in Free Enterprise and Thomas E. Skains, chairman of the board of Piedmont Natural Gas Co. speak prior to the MTSU Economic Outlook Conference. TMP/E. Edgemon

The Tennessee economy lost so many jobs over the last three years that it will take four or five years to recovery, said a local economist.

Some 200,000 jobs were lost from December 2007-August 2010, said David Penn, director of the Business and Economic Research Center at MTSU. The state lost 7.8 percent of its non-farm jobs, compared with the average loss of 5.6 percent.

Penn recently presented the economic outlook for Tennessee and the Nashville area during the MTSU Economic Outlook Conference held at the Embassy Suites Hotel and Conference Center.

Thomas Skains, chairman of the board, for Piedmont Natural Gas Co. was the keynote speaker for the conference.

Stephen B. Smith, chairman of the board of Haury & Smith Contractors, one of Nashville’s oldest development and homebuilding companies was awarded the Jennings A. Jones Champion of Free Enterprise Award. The award recognizes a person whose outstanding career exemplifies the ideals of free enterprise, governmental involvement, participation in civic and charitable affairs and education.

Tennessee tied with Alabama and Ohio as the ninth highest loss of jobs in the nation, Penn said.

In the spring, Penn said the state saw some job growth but that has drifted away by this fall.

Much of the job growth that the state and the Nashville area may see in the next few years could be in manufacturing.

“Manufacturing may be in for a little resurgence,” Penn said in an interview.

Examples are the planed expansion of the Nissan manufacturing plant in Smyrna with its lithium-ion battery plant and the recently announced expansion of the General Mills plant in Murfreesboro.

General Mills announced last week that it would invest $100 million in the expansion of the company’s production facility and add approximately 80 jobs.

Penn said it is a “bode of confidence when you see a business that has been here a long time” plan an expansion and hiring of additional employees.

Tennessee, however, is seeing higher sales tax collections especially for higher ticket items, a rise in consumer confidence, which could signal a coming increase in employment, Penn said. Most of the retail growth is being seen in automobile sales and furniture and home furnishings.

Sales tax collections are up for April, May, June and July over the year.

Possible explanations for the increase in automobile sales and furniture and home furnishings include replacement of items lost in the floods in May; pent up demand, replacing worn out items; and because sales were so low in 2009.

Tennessee unemployment remains high at 9.6 percent but is down from its peak at 10.9 percent last August.

State sees slight job growth in past months, more on horizon

A few weeks ago a survey conducted by Manpower employment agency suggested hiring may be on the rise in Tennessee.

For the coming quarter, job prospects appear best in transportation and utilities, wholesale and retail trade, information, education and health services, leisure and hospitality and government. Employers in financial activities and professional and business services plan to reduce staffing levels, while construction, durable and nondurable goods manufacturing and other services employers expect no change in headcount.

On top of the survey, Tennessee’s unemployment rate in August was 9.6 percent, down one-tenth of a percentage point from the revised July rate of 9.7 percent. The August 2009 rate was 10.9 percent. The national unemployment rate for August 2010 was 9.6 percent, up from the July rate of 9.5 percent.

The drop was fueled by gains in the health care, education and local government as well as small buisness.

“Though unemployment rates remain unusually high, August is the first time since April 2007 that Tennessee has equaled the national rate,” reports Labor Commissioner James Neeley.  

Murfreesboro and Rutherford County should see modest job growth in the coming months with planned expansions at Nissan and General Mills.

General Mills officials say the plant, which manufactures products for General Mills’ Yoplait brand, will add approximately 80 jobs.

Erin Edgemon can be contacted at eedgemon@murfreesboropost.com.

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