By Andy Sher

Gov. Bill Haslam and other state officials exulted Thursday as Tennessee's unemployment rate sank to its lowest point in recorded state history last month.

The preliminary seasonally adjusted jobless rate of 3.6 percent in June burst through Tennessee's previous low of 3.7 percent, reported in March 2000.

Tennessee has not experienced an unemployment rate below 4.0 percent since it stood at 3.9 percent more than 16 years ago in February 2001.

Monthly data has been issued by the state since 1976.

"What's truly exciting about today's news is that this is a statewide story," said Haslam, celebrating the event at his first news conference solely devoted to the unemployment rate.

With his commissioners of economic development, labor and workforce development and education in tow along with Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor Flora Tydings, the Republican governor used the occasion to tout what he sees as his policy successes in areas ranging from low taxes and a better educated workforce to job recruitment successes.

In recent months, Haslam said, unemployment rates in often hard-to-impact rural areas have fallen from what had been the double digits to single digits. But in May, there was only one of Tennessee's 95 counties that had an unemployment rate above 5 percent.

That happened to be Rhea County, just north of Chattanooga, which had a May unemployment rate of 5.1 percent.

But pointing to the announcement in May by Finland-based Nokian Tyres -- the tire manufacturer will locate a $360 million plant with 400 workers in Dayton -- Haslam said "good news has come to Rhea and we think even more good news may come to that part of the world before long."

Haslam is scheduled to announce a new business to take over the shuttered former Dura Automotive plant in Pikeville, Tenn., on Monday.

"Today more than ever, businesses have a choice of where to grow or expand, and because of the policies this administration has put in place working with the General Assembly, we're seeing the job growth that comes when businesses choose Tennessee," Haslam said.

Over the past year, Tennessee employers have added 59,300 jobs. Tennessee's 2 percent growth in employment over the past year continued to outpace the 1.4 percent growth in jobs nationwide in the past 12 months and the state's chief economic forecaster expects the Volunteer State to continue to outpace the rest of the nation.

"We have continued to have a lot of big hits with new business announcements and a lot of them have been in Chattanooga and Cleveland," said Dr. Bill Fox, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee. "We benefit by our location in an economy where more transport is taking place and having a huge presence with FedEx, Amazon and others in our central location is fueling a lot of increase in jobs."

Fox said Tennessee's entrepreneurial activity is also doing better than the national norm and he expects the overall economy in Tennessee to continue to improve in the next year.

Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Burns Phillips said it's noteworthy when a state rate declines amid a national "uptick" in unemployment. The U.S. jobless rate edged up a tenth of a percentage point in June to 4.4 percent.

When Haslam, a Republican, became governor in 2011, the state was still recovered from the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. Phillips noted the unemployment rate seven years ago was above 10 percent.

"One of Gov. Haslam's top priorities has been to make Tennessee the best state in the Southeast for high quality jobs," he said. "All indications point to that priority becoming a reality."

To the south of Tennessee, employment growth has been even faster in the past year in Georgia, although the jobless rate in the Peach State remains above that in both Tennessee and across the country as a whole.

The Georgia Department of Labor said Thursday that Georgia's jobless rate declined by a tenth of a percentage point to 4.8 percent in June -- the lowest rate since September 2007 before the Great Recession.

"Georgia's unemployment rate is the lowest it has been in almost 10 years because our employers continue to create jobs and put record numbers of people to work," Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said in his monthly jobs report. "We now have record highs for the number of employed individuals (4.37 million), the labor force size and total number of jobs in Georgia."

Over the past 12 months, Georgia gained 122,600 jobs -- a 2.8 percent growth rate that is nearly double the national growth pace of 1.6 percent.

Despite the drop in unemployment, wage increases have not yet accelerated as is typical in an economy at or approaching full employment.

"At this point, nearly everyone who wants to find a job should be able to find one, but it has been surprising that we have not seen more wage inflation as employers compete for workers in a tighter labor market," Fox said.

In June, the average manufacturing wage in Tennessee was $19.12 per hour, or 10 cents-an-hour less than the previous month. Tennessee manufacturing pay, on average, was 7.5 percent less than the U.S. average manufacturing wage of $20.74 per hour last month.

(c)2017 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)