During the most recent cycle of the Federal Open Market Committee (which ran from June 19 to July 30), the Atlanta Fed's Regional Economic Information Network (REIN) team at the Nashville Branch met with business leaders, including branch directors, to discuss economic conditions.

General business conditions
Our REIN contacts in Middle and East Tennessee remain optimistic about the prospects for their businesses and the general economy. Most have a positive outlook and report solid growth in customer demand.

Our contacts also indicate that manufacturing is expanding robustly, with the sector running at nearly full capacity, especially the auto industry. A large building-materials manufacturer expects faster growth in the second half of 2014 as the construction industry recovers from the weather-related disruptions earlier in the year. In the Nashville area, both the commercial and residential real estate markets are doing well, benefiting from the low interest rate environment, strong net in-migration, and rising household incomes as the employment picture improves.

Employment and labor markets
Employment growth has accelerated in Tennessee during the past year, and growth momentum is strong across most major metropolitan areas in the state (see the chart).


Middle Tennessee State University's Business and Economic Research Center produces a heat map of Tennessee's employment growth by industry (based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data) that nicely illustrates what we've been hearing from our business contacts: namely, employment in construction, professional and business services, and leisure and hospitality has been outpacing growth in other industries.

As the labor market improves, businesses are increasingly sharing stories about the difficulties companies face in finding qualified workers across a broad skill spectrum. In addition, several companies have expressed concern that replacing skilled employees who are nearing retirement age will be challenging. Consequently, companies appear to be expanding internal training programs to deal with existing and potential skill shortages.

In addition to our meetings with business executives, we polled a number of mostly larger firms to find whether they experienced difficulty filling open positions. Out of 21 respondents, two-thirds said yes. Seventy percent of those respondents said that they have raised offer wages to attract new hires.

We also conducted a brief poll of 32 of our construction industry contacts. On the residential side, 75 percent indicated that it is now more or much more difficult to find skilled labor compared to the mid-2000s. Skilled labor availability is even tighter in commercial real estate—nearly 85 percent of respondents said finding skilled workers now is more difficult.

We have not heard of any pick-up in materials and other nonlabor input costs but, as mentioned above, the shortage of skilled applicants is putting upward pressure on offer wages. Several manufacturing contacts said that they increased their starting wages along with peer companies in their geographic area.

In the construction industry in particular, labor cost pressures on the residential side have increased compared to the mid-2000s for almost two-thirds of respondents to our poll. Moreover, labor cost pressures have intensified for more than three-fourths of the commercial builders we've polled.

Availability of credit and investments
In the same poll, two-thirds of the homebuilders and residential brokers said it is more or much more difficult to obtain financing for construction projects compared with the mid-2000s. And everyone on that panel said that it is more or much more difficult to obtain financing for land/lot development. Financing conditions are a bit easier for commercial builders (see the chart).


One national commercial construction firm said that financing conditions are actually easier for them now than 10 years ago. Notably, equity financing is becoming more prominent in a number of sectors as investors are looking for higher returns than they can get at financial institutions, and banks' lending standards remain rigorous.

All this said, the positive sentiment among our business contacts in Middle and East Tennessee could possibly also signal continued improvement in the health of the national economy, given that the structure of Tennessee's economy for the most part resembles that of the United States' as a whole. Be sure to check back here as we'll periodically update the Middle and East Tennessee economy.

Photo of Galina Alexeenko By Galina Alexeenko, a Regional Economic Information Network director in the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch