Scott County’s unemployment rate has never been as low as it is right now.

According to jobless numbers released by the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development last week, Scott County’s unemployment rate has dropped to 3.8 percent, beating out the previous record low of 3.9 percent, which was set in May 2001.

The new rate, which represents September’s measurement, was a full percentage point lower than August’s jobless rate of 4.8 percent. And, by a full 1.2 percentage points, it is the lowest September unemployment rate ever measured in Scott County, beating out the previous low mark of 5.0 percent, set in 2000.

That news came just one week after Tennessee announced that its unemployment rate is at a record low of 3.0 percent. And after each of Tennessee’s 95 counties posted decreased unemployment rates in August, for the first time ever, it happened again in September. The latest round of jobless numbers also marks the first time in the state’s history that every county has an unemployment rate below five percent.

“With every county seeing unemployment rates below five percent and with a record statewide unemployment rate, Tennessee’s fiscal strength is clear and the investment in our workforce is paying off,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said. “Employers know that Tennessee is a place where they can find skilled workers, so they continue to expand and relocate here.”

The historically-low unemployment rate in Scott County is brow-raising for another reason: it is lower than the national unemployment rate.

The U.S. Labor Department announced last month that September’s unemployment rate for the nation is 4.2 percent. It isn’t often that Scott County, which qualifies as an economically-distressed community in Tennessee, ranks better than the national average in any statistical category, but there are fewer eligible workers without work in Scott County than in the U.S. as a whole — a far cry from just six years ago, when Scott County’s unemployment rate was one of the nation’s highest, at greater than 23 percent as nearly one in four eligible workers struggled to find work.

Coming back from the bottom

So how did Scott County’s jobless picture get to this point? According to the numbers released by the state, the number of working Scott Countians took a big step forward in September. There were 7,770 Scott County workers gainfully employed during the month — 150 more than in August. There were 310 Scott Countians listed as unemployed, down 70 from the previous month.

Critics are quick to point out that many workers have given up on finding work and are no longer listed as part of the work force. That’s partially true, but the local work force still increased in September, rising from 8,000 to 8,080.

There are still about 600 fewer Scott Countians in the work force than in January 2011, when the local unemployment rate reached its high-water mark. But there are also more than 1,100 additional Scott Countians working now than there were then.

The 7,770 Scott Countians currently employed is up almost 500 from January, when 7,280 Scott Countians were at work. The number of working Scott Countians is now at its highest point since economic recession began in late 2007, when just over 8,000 Scott Countians were employed.

The estimated local work force, meanwhile, is at its highest point of the calendar year.

To find the last time there were as few Scott Countians out of work and actively seeking employment, you have to go all the way back to 1973. In May of that year, there were 230 unemployed Scott Countians, and the unemployment rate was 4.8 percent. At that time, there were only 4,610 Scott Countians at work.

Traditionally, there have seldom been more available jobs than available workers in Scott County. Since records-keeping began in January 2003, there have only been 10 months — out of 536 total months — with a local unemployment rate of less than five percent. And there have only been four of those 10 with an unemployment rate below 4.5 percent — two of which have occurred in 2017.

Industrial expansions

Perhaps most astoundingly, Scott County’s historically-low jobless rate has been achieved without the opening of new factories or major employers — although the re-opening of Scott County’s hospital, as Big South Medical Center, certainly played a significant role.

Instead, the gains have come largely through expansions at existing manufacturing facilities, including Takahata Precision America, which manufactures precision-molded parts for the auto industry.

And there’s still room for further job growth. Most of Scott County’s largest manufacturing employers — including Takahata, which is running a marketing blitz this week in search of workers — have unfilled jobs. Helenwood-based Container Technologies Inc. is actively looking for welders to expand its workforce, and Huntsville’s Tennier Industries held a job fair to seek workers earlier this year. Twin K Enterprises, which operates a road construction firm, a steel erector business and a concrete plant in Scott County, also held a job fair this summer.

Catching the region

There’s one more thing about Scott County’s current jobless picture that is unusual: Scott County — which set a state record for consecutive months atop the unemployment chart and has long had the highest unemployment rate in the Upper Cumberland region — has caught up with much of the rest of the region.

Among counties that border Scott County, Pickett County’s unemployment rate is now showing the way, at 3.0 percent, down from 3.6 percent in August. Anderson County’s jobless rate is just behind, at 3.1 percent. Fentress County follows with an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent. Scott, Campbell and Morgan counties are all tied, at 3.8 percent unemployment. It marks the first time in recent history that Scott County’s joblessness has not been higher than either of those two counties.

And for a county that was for so long listed as having one of the Top 10 unemployment rates in Tennessee, consider this: there are now 20 counties with an unemployment rate equal to or higher than Scott County’s. And Scott County is within two-tenths of a percentage point of 11 other counties.