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Downtown Knoxville sunset photographed from the roof of Hotel Knoxville

Positive economic growth is expected over the next year for Tennessee, although it may be rocky and somewhat sporadic as the state digs out of the recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The state’s economic forecast is explored in a report released today by the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, but the cautiously optimistic outlook comes with a caveat.

Larry Kessler
Larry Kessler, research associate professor in UT’s Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research and project director for the 2021 Economic Report to the Governor of the State of Tennessee.

“There is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the economy and economic recovery, especially with regard to the trajectory of the virus and whether the current surge will lead consumers to grow more cautious again,” said Larry Kessler, research associate professor in the Boyd Center and project director for the 2021 Economic Report to the Governor of the State of Tennessee. “There’s also a lot of uncertainty regarding new fiscal stimulus measures from Washington, as well as the timetable for widespread vaccine distribution, all of which could affect economic growth in the near term.”

Tennessee experienced a decade of strong nonfarm job growth leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic. Following an expected fall of 3.6 percent in 2020, nonfarm jobs will likely experience moderate growth in the first half of 2021, followed by stronger employment growth in the second half of the year as vaccines are made more widely available. As a result, nonfarm employment will increase by 2.2 percent in 2021 and 2.0 percent in 2022.  However, employment in the state likely will not return to prepandemic levels until early 2023, and some sectors of the economy will take even longer to recover. Leisure and hospitality likely won’t fully recover until 2024, while manufacturing employment will remain below prepandemic levels through 2030.

“The pandemic has led to a huge reduction in consumer spending, especially on services that require in-person contact,” Kessler said. “So until we get the pandemic under control, many businesses and workers—especially those in the service sector—will continue to face harsh economic conditions.”

The state’s inflation-adjusted gross domestic product is expected to mirror that of the nation and fall by 3.5 percent in 2020. In Tennessee, GDP is expected to increase by 2.9 percent in 2021 and 3.6 percent in 2022, returning to prepandemic levels by the end of 2022.

The unemployment rate in Tennessee swung from a record low of 3.3 percent in March 2020 to a record high of 15.5 percent in April 2020, but the state has rebounded relatively quickly and is projected to end the year with a 7.5 percent average. The unemployment rate will continue to decrease in the years to come, falling to 5.2 percent in 2021 and 4.4 percent in 2022.

“Tennessee has been fortunate to see continuous growth and job creation in the midst of an unprecedented year,” said Bob Rolfe, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. “Adjusting to the new normal has enabled a wave of business formation and bolstered the entrepreneurial spirit that is strong in Tennessee. We remain hopeful and confident in Tennessee’s economic growth as we continue to recruit and support companies across the state.”

The report’s fourth chapter dives deeper into the pandemic’s effects on the state economy. A shift in consumer spending patterns and legislative changes surrounding the collection of sales tax on online purchases buoyed state sales tax revenues in 2020 in comparison to earlier recessions. Instead of spending money on in-person services, many consumers diverted to goods—particularly those bought online.

The federal government’s stimulus actions, such as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and Federal Reserve monetary policy, likely played a role in continued spending even as unemployment insurance claims skyrocketed in the spring. Since March, there have been more than 900,000 UI claims filed; during the Great Recession, 790,000 claims were filed over a much longer 81-week span.

Long-term unemployment is a concern, with more than 10 million people unemployed across the US. Many people experiencing long-term unemployment might have emptied their savings to stay afloat or may be facing the end of UI benefits soon. National data shows that some subpopulations—in particular, women, Black and Hispanic workers, and younger workers—faced a harsher labor market shock than others.

Chapter Four also looks into social assistance programs in Tennessee, trends in early-stage business formations, implications for education and learning during the pandemic, and temporary state policy changes.

Other items of interest:

  • The report projects that the Federal Reserve will continue to hold interest rates near zero in order to promote economic recovery.
  • The report highlights the importance of improving education and health, both of which provided buffers to some of the pandemic’s adverse effects. Pandemic-related job losses were less widespread among those with higher education levels, and better health status has been linked to a lower likelihood of severe COVID-19 symptoms.

Since 1975, the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research, housed within UT’s Haslam College of Business, has provided Tennessee’s governor with an annual economic report that includes an in-depth analysis of state and national trends and forecasts.



Erin Hatfield (865-974-6086,