County unemployment picture improves

Lupe Abrego wipes down one of the boats in the assembly line at Malibu Boats in Loudon.

After reaching historic highs earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Loudon County’s unemployment rate is one of the best in Tennessee.

The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development reported last month that September’s rate statewide was 6.3%, which is down from April’s 15.5% when the pandemic kicked into full swing.

Loudon County’s rate for September was 4.5%, which was just 0.1% from the top 10 lowest counties in the state.

April’s 15.2% remains the county’s highest unemployment rate, surpassing the previous high of 10.9% in January 2010.

“Our total labor force in September was 23,431, with the unemployment rate at 4.5%, or 1,050 people, not currently employed,” Jack Qualls, Loudon County Economic Development Agency executive director, said in an email correspondence. “Compare that to Loudon County numbers in September 2019, we had roughly 726 unemployed.”

Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw took the drop as a positive sign for the local workforce.

“I think we’re still about a percentage point above, maybe a little bit less than a percentage point where we were at when the pandemic set,” Bradshaw said. “I think it speaks to the strength of our industrial base as much as anything. When it was up there 15 percent that was very scary. Of course, that was all during the governor’s shutdown and so I understand it was very unknown and we didn’t know what we were dealing with at that time, still don’t know much, but we know a little bit more than what we did.

“... Everywhere in this county is hiring,” he added. “Good, quality jobs are out there to be had. It’s a matter of getting people to step up and fill them.”

Bradshaw believes the county will continue to move toward the September 2019 rate of 3.1%.

“You look at our industries, the only industry we lost for nay amount of time was Malibu, and it was only a short shutdown for them,” Bradshaw said. “Most of these industries were hiring even before the pandemic hit, and I don’t know if maybe we’re seeing maybe folks that are going into a different line of work, switching up some jobs, but all of our factories with exception to Malibu for those few weeks being declared essential was crucial. Now we’re seeing folks leave some of the lower-income jobs that are going into bigger ones. Maybe we see folks that are stepping out of unemployment into some of those jobs as well.”

The state reports 11,100 new non-farm jobs were created in August and September. Leisure/hospitality had the largest number of new hires in September, with manufacturing the second-largest sector.

Malibu Boats shut down for three weeks toward the end of March and first of April, but employee head count remained the same, Debbie Kent, Malibu Boats vice president of human resources, said.

“Initially we thought the pandemic was going to create some concerns about boat sales but it did the complete opposite,” Kent said. “Instead of folks traveling, they’re still interested in recreation but wanting to buy boats because they could have their family vacation together without having to travel.”

Hopes are to hire 30 more people due to higher demand, she said.

Malibu Boats is making 22 boats per day, Lynn Little, plant manager, said.

Robert Smalling, Viskase director of cellulose technology, said the Loudon plant has seen little to no impact during the pandemic and has had no layoffs. Viskase remains at full employment.

“We’ve been hiring all along as far as Viskase,” Smalling said. “Our business did not slow down. We were considered an essential business, therefore, we were given an exemption even during the height of the COVID. All of our employees carried letters in case they were stopped or anything because it was deemed an essential business because we’re in the food processing chain. That was going forward, and all through this time we have actually for the last two years been hiring trying to get back up to full employment.”

Smalling believes an improving workforce will benefit the local economy.

“If you have low employment, you have more money being pumped into the community where people can go spend money, which accelerates the growth for the small businesses that are here in Loudon,” he said.

The county’s median workforce age is 48 compared to the state’s overall age at 39, Qualls said.

“This is concerning given our overall population consists of 25 percent of our residents being 65 and older, which is 1.5 times the statewide average,” Qualls said.

He believes the county needs to continue investing in STEM programs for area schools and assisting with higher-skilled students for future job markets.

“Our biggest challenge to the workforce seems to be attracting young people to move here to work, live and play,” Qualls said. “Recent efforts to develop entry-level housing will help this issue, but construction takes time. ... The EDA has initiated an Industry Spotlight social media campaign to highlight our local industries. This creates awareness and exposure in a virtual format due to the current inability to tour facilities in person. We also encourage employers to host their own hiring events safely at their facilities. The EDA helps to organize, promote and market these events.”