"We generally have seen gains this year, and while the levels are really low, the pattern is at least one of growth," said University of Tennessee economist Bill Fox.
A 2 percent increase in factory jobs statewide this year has largely been driven by a recovering auto sector, which provides the bulk of Tennessee's manufacturing work. The growth is particularly strong among small auto-parts suppliers, whose fortunes fell over the past two years as big automakers struggled with poor sales.
"Detroit getting back on its feet is good for Tennessee," said David Penn, an economist at Middle Tennessee State University. "Our auto suppliers produce not only for plants in the state, but for other states as well."RelatedJobs resources and tipsChart: Manufacturing jobs show gain
Tennessee's jobless rate was 9.8 percent for July, the state Labor Department said on Thursday. That's the lowest unemployment rate in almost a year and a half.
Tennessee's data were much brighter than a companion national report showing that first-time unemployment claims in the U.S. rose last week to 500,000 a level worse than economists had expected.
"The recovery is clearly slowing," said Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics.
In Tennessee, though, the jobless rate has edged lower for several months and finally reached single digits. Still, some companies are holding off on permanent hires for now, and instead are giving current employees overtime hours or hiring temporary workers.
Manufacturing employees statewide worked an average of 43.2 hours a week in June, up from a recent low of 38.5 hours in January 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Rising hours are often viewed as a precursor to more hiring.
Temporary-employment agencies have added about 10,000 jobs during the past six months, Penn said, with many of those in manufacturing.
"I think we're just now seeing manufacturers starting to nibble at hiring permanent workers instead of temps," he said.(2 of 3)
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