Even as the national unemployment picture slightly improved, the job front in Florida — and Tampa Bay in particular — took a turn for the worse in November.
Among lowlights revealed Friday:
• In shedding 16,700 more jobs last month, Florida not only lost more jobs than any other state, it exceeded the net loss of jobs for the entire country (11,000 jobs).
• Florida's unemployment rate rose to a 34-year high of 11.5 percent, up from a revised 11.3 percent in October. The state rate is now running a full 1.5 percentage points higher than the national unemployment rate. For much of the recession, the gap had been one percentage point or less.
• The Tampa Bay area's jobless rate jumped half a percentage point to 12.3 percent, making it the most job-challenged major metropolitan area in Florida. The region's most sluggish county remained Hernando, which saw its unemployment rate rocket to 14.7 percent, up from 14.0 percent the prior month.
At Career Central, a job resource center in Spring Hill, Tara Romano, 24, was eager to replace a job she had lost at McDonald's just after Thanksgiving. Her boyfriend, who had been laid off from Wendy's, was searching job prospects at a nearby computer terminal.
"We're looking at retail," Romano said. "Kind of like everyone else, we'll take whatever we can get just to survive."
Lucy Diaz said she has never seen the job market this bad in her five years managing the Hernando County career center.
"We try to give people hope. We tell them this is just a transition," Diaz said. "It's hard, especially now with this season. People want to be able to buy presents for their kids."
Rebecca Rust, chief economist with the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, which coordinates the unemployment report, offered little hope of a fast turnaround.
As one of the states at the epicenter of the housing bust, Florida is expected to lag behind much of the country in creating new jobs.
November's rate is the highest posted in Florida since May 1975, when unemployment peaked at 11.9 percent. Several economists predict the state will break the 12 percent mark early next year before gradually retreating.
It could take until 2019, state economists project, before unemployment in Florida gets back to a more palatable 6 percent range.
With more than 1 million jobless out of a statewide labor force of 9.2 million, Florida was singled out by the Labor Department as the only state in the country to post a statistically significant increase in unemployment in November. Seven other states that posted significant changes in unemployment all saw their rates go down. In fact, 36 states and the District of Columbia all saw a dip in unemployment last month.
About 9,200 of the jobs Florida lost in November were tied to construction, most of them specialty trade contractors, Rust said.
More than two-thirds of Florida's job shedding over the year has been tied to three industry sectors: construction; trade, transportation and utilities; and professional and business services. Health care has been the only growing industry for much of the year.
Rust cited numerous factors hampering recovery: small businesses are still struggling to get credit; there's a mismatch between many of the unemployed and job openings; big budget deficits are holding down spending; and the housing market remains sluggish despite a recent increase in prices.
There are pockets of encouraging news. Corporate profits are up; exports are up; the pace of job losses statewide has moderated; temporary employment is up; and some companies have recently announced hiring plans.
PODS, the Clearwater-based moving and storage company known for its portable storage containers, is among those dangling a "Help Wanted" sign. It's seeking 255 sales reps and call center workers.
Lisa Goettel, senior vice president of PODS' human resources division, said Friday that she has hired 75 people since mid-November and is adding workers at a pace of 30 to 45 a month. The pay: about $11 an hour with incentives for call center reps and between $30,000 and $40,000 a year for those in sales.
Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg, expects improvement as more federal stimulus dollars are spent on jobs in Florida and the U.S. Census Bureau ramps up to hire 5,000 temporary workers in the bay area through next spring.
But state officials concede more needs to be done.
Cynthia Lorenzo, director of the Agency for Workforce Innovation, said the just-released rate "reinforces the need for a variety of strategies to help bolster job growth in Florida."
Earlier this week, AWI and other state agencies announced a new program intended to create as many as 25,000 jobs for Floridians. The state could receive up to $200 million in federal funding through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program to help pay for jobs between now and September 2010.
That effort, called Florida Back to Work, combined with recently signed legislation for a passenger rail line in the state, could help as many as 39,000 Floridians get back to work, Lorenzo said.
Justin Durr is among those waiting in the wings . . . patiently.
Durr, 27, was laid off at Weeki Wachee Springs a year ago when the attraction became a state park. Since then, he has postponed his wedding and taken courses in the medical field to bolster his technology background.
And he has become more philosophical. "Being unemployed has been an eye-opener," Durr said. "I learned so many things about myself. You find you have friends in the strangest places. A lot of people say it builds character.
"I wouldn't trade it."
Times correspondent Shary Lyssy Marshall contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8242.