Just days after losing their jobs at the Whirlpool plant in La Vergne, a crowd of laid-off workers gathered in the lobby Thursday of the Tennessee Career Center in Murfreesboro, where they were greeted by a billboard advertising classes such as "resume writing" and "job search hints."
Some of them had worked for more than a decade at the plant and were wondering how they could ever find jobs making as much money as they had at Whirlpool.
"I feel like a dog that's been kicked out on the street,'' said 43-year-old Donna Garcia, who has a high school diploma and was making nearly $15 per hour.
Garcia, who lives in rural Christiana, south of Murfreesboro, with her 16-year-old son, doubts that she will be able to get another manufacturing job making her previous pay.
She isn't alone.
Figures released Thursday by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development show that layoffs, driven primarily by a loss of manufacturing jobs, are disproportionately hurting rural areas.
In the past year alone, the state has lost close to 10,000 manufacturing jobs. Just one big plant closing in a rural area can lead to high rates of unemployment.
Seasonally adjusted figures for July show that Tennessee had a 6.9 percent unemployment rate, compared to the U.S. rate of 5.7 percent.
County-by-county numbers released Thursday show that in Middle Tennessee, locations such as Perry, Wayne, and Lawrence counties, all of which had double-digit unemployment rates in July, showed some of the worst job numbers in the state. Fifteen counties showed double-digit unemployment rates in July, all of them in rural areas.
By comparison, unemployment rates in metropolitan areas such as Nashville and Knoxville mostly held steady.
In the Nashville-Murfreesboro MSA, unemployment rates stayed the same between June and July at 5.8 percent, though that is up 2 percentage points compared to July 2007.
And Williamson County showed a monthly decline in its unemployment rate of
4.6 percent, the lowest in the state.
"A lot of what has happened is we have gotten out of low wage, low skilled manufacturing, and that has gone overseas,'' University of Tennessee economist Bill Fox said. He said manufacturing output actually has grown in the state, but that jobs are being lost as operations become more efficient.
In Perry County, for example, which has a population of 7,600 people southwest of Nashville, the July unemployment rate rose 5.5 percentage points to 20.3 percent, which was the highest in the state.
The county is losing a major employer, automotive parts supplier Fisher & Company, said the county mayor, John Carroll. The plant will have shed about 400 jobs by the time it closes at the end of this month as operations move to Mexico, Carroll said.
"We've been working hard trying to find replacements," he said. "So far, we have not been successful. We've had luck with small businesses that will employ 10 or 12 employees, but we haven't had luck finding someone that would replace this many jobs."
Carroll said many workers at the plant were well-trained and made $12 to $14 per hour.
Nearby Wayne County had an unemployment rate of 10.7 percent in July, and Lawrence had a rate of 10.5 percent. When it comes to looking for work, employees like Garcia are becoming frustrated after months of applying for jobs online.
Realty Viewpoint: Location Has Never Been More Important
AT&T will offer cable in 56 cities
Economic Data: Jobs Report Could Have Been Worse