Tampa Bay's already-depressed construction industry just crumpled to a new low.
For the 12-month period ending in January, the bay area lost more construction jobs than any other metro region in the country. That dropped construction employment here to the lowest level since the federal government began tracking it in 1990.
Only 43,000 construction jobs are left in an area that bragged it was one of the country's top growth spots just six years ago. January's dismal tally shows bay area construction employment down 14 percent year over year and a startling 55 percent from the market's peak of 95,300 jobs in June 2006.
Don Bartley, a cabinet maker who handles jobs from north Tampa to south Sarasota, said he isn't surprised. Almost all his work now is warranty and remodels, with very little new construction. He blames the ongoing glut of cheaper foreclosures on the market. "There's just too many foreclosures still going on," he said. "There's still too many old houses for sale."
Tampa Bay homebuilder Mike Bartoletta offered another reason this region in particular has lagged behind. "Manufacturing started seeing an increase (in activity) first. We're in a service-based area, so we didn't have the manufacturing to get our economy rolling again."
Bartoletta, who closed his longtime luxury builder Hannah-Bartoletta Homes last year and has resurfaced with a smaller operation called Taralon Homes, understands the hesitation by buyers, builders and lenders to move ahead. "This downturn was like no other," he said. "They've all been banged up … and they're not taking the risks."
Statewide, overall unemployment has fallen from 10.9 percent a year ago to 9.6 percent as of January; the bay area, similarly, has seen unemployment drop from 11.7 percent to 9.9 percent.
Other parts of Florida's economy have begun adding jobs again: tourism, retail, health care, professional and business services; even languishing industries like manufacturing and financial services.
But construction is still mired in a "how low can you go" nosedive. Especially in Tampa Bay.
The bay area's loss of 7,100 more construction jobs since January 2011 represents nearly 2,000 more lost jobs than any other metro in the nation, according to an analysis released Tuesday by industry trade group Associated General Contractors.
All told, construction employment dropped in 111 out of 337 metro areas, the AGC reported. Construction jobs rose in 169 metros and stayed flat in 57.
Ken Simonson, the association's chief economist, said the mixed results reflect a conflict between a slowly rebounding private sector and the drop in public sector investments as federal stimulus dollars dried up.
"For every metro area that is adding construction jobs, there is another one where construction employment continues to fall or is stagnant," Simonson said.
On a percentage basis, Springfield Mass., was the biggest loser with a 23 percent drop (down 1,800 jobs), while Atlantic City, led winners with a 45 percent surge in employment (up 1,700 jobs).
Some homebuilders, like Bartoletta in Tampa Bay, say they see signs the worst is over.
"I think the bottom of the trough was last summer and we're coming out of it now," he said. "We've got two new customers. … We're starting to get some traffic. Banks are starting to lend some money."
And then there's Bartoletta's pool gauge for predicting a comeback: One of his pool contractors built only 18 pools all last year. So far this year, he's already contracted for 35.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.