Judging by the latest unemployment numbers, Florida's jobs market appears stuck in neutral.
Job growth was relatively flat and the state's unemployment rate was unchanged at 10.6 percent, ending five months of declines.
What those numbers don't reflect are all the people who have simply stopped looking.
Labor force participation — the percentage of those 16 and up who either have a job or are looking for one — has been declining steadily for the past six months.
About 16,000 people dropped out of Florida's labor force last month alone, at the same time the overall population of working-age Floridians grew by 12,000.
Some of those left because of retirement, disability or family life changes. But economist Sean Snaith of the University of Central Florida thinks many — if not most — are what's commonly called "discouraged workers," people who have stopped looking for work but will resume their search when the economy improves. When they do, it increases competition and pushes up unemployment again.
"For a truly recovering labor market you would have to see a growing labor force, rising payroll and the unemployment rate going down," he said. "You need all three. We haven't seen that."
Rebecca Rust, chief economist with the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, acknowledged there are fewer looking for work. She just doesn't know how big of a problem it will become.
"Yes, one can assume that the drop in the labor force is not all due to retirement and disability," she said. "Unfortunately, there is no way to quantify exactly how many people left the labor force for any specific reason. We also have no way of knowing if or when any of these people would return."
The government's official count of discouraged workers also includes those working part-time but seeking full-time jobs. Add them to the ranks of the unemployed and Florida's jobless rate would be 18.7 percent, Rust said.
Some job seekers sitting on the sidelines during part of the recession re-entered earlier this year when it looked like the economy was improving, and then pulled out again. Snaith coined a phrase for them: re-discouraged workers.
He understands their frustration. "This has been going on for how many years? How many resumes can you send out? How many job fairs can you attend?"
Ask Robert Foster, 25, of St. Petersburg. He quit his job at Tropical Smoothie about seven months ago because he didn't like it.
"I apply for a job pretty much three or four times a week," said Foster, who estimates he has filled out about 100 applications in the past year. "No one was hiring. I kept getting the runaround."
So he gave up for a few months between March and June, but says he's now back at it.
Labor force participation isn't the only sign of a weak labor pool. Consider the employment-population ratio, a Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate for the proportion of the civilian population 16 and up who are employed.
During more prosperous times, the ratio was higher than 60 percent. It slumped to as low as 54.7 percent in January before showing some recent improvement. In June, the ratio dropped back down to a four-month low.
Wachovia senior economist Mark Vitner pointed out that Florida was actually doing better than most of the country in labor force participation earlier this year. He attributed some of that to older Floridians who needed to work to maintain health care benefits.
Although labor force participation has fallen for most groups, it has risen for older workers who lost their nest eggs and are postponing retirement.
"The younger ones can sit on their parents' couches and play video games, but the parents can't get away with that," he said.
Vitner and other economists said Florida's economy is still fragile.
The housing market is still searching for a bottom. Consumer confidence is shaky amid high energy prices and high-anxiety debt talks. Layoffs in state and local government along with Space Coast cuts are expected to show up on the rolls as soon as next month.
Still, there were snippets of encouraging news in Friday's report:
• The state added a modest 4,300 jobs over the month, a significant slowdown after adding 28,000 jobs in May, but positive nonetheless. Since the beginning of the year, Florida has gained 85,500 jobs.
• For the first time, there was year-over-year gain in manufacturing jobs. The 800-job increase was small, Rust said, but a step in the right direction for a key industry.
• Six industries have added jobs compared to a year ago, led by leisure and hospitality with 46,700 jobs, or more than 5 percent.
The jobs outlook was worse on the county and metro area level. Tampa Bay's jobless rate rose to 11.1 percent, up from 10.6 percent in May.
It's not quite as bad as it looks, however. Unlike state figures, local estimates are not seasonally adjusted, so they tend to fluctuate more month-to-month.
Times staff writer Aubrey Whelan contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or firstname.lastname@example.org.