In a release of revised employment figures Friday, Florida officials knocked the legs out from under the Tampa Bay area's long-standing reputation as a hotbed of job creation.
Not only did the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area win the dubious distinction of being the biggest job loser in the state in January, with 11,700 fewer jobs than a year earlier, it also turns out that job growth stalled locally last spring and started eroding quickly in July, with the hemorrhaging continuing through the second half of the year.
While month-to-month estimates touted in news releases from Florida's Agency for Workforce Innovation in 2007 were painting a rosy picture of jobs being created in the Tampa Bay area, data now show that the exact opposite was happening.
In September, for example, the state announced the Tampa Bay area had created 13,400 jobs while, in fact, it had lost 15,900 — a difference of 29,300 jobs.
The abrupt turnabout in fortunes shocked Ed Peachey, executive director of WorkNet Pinellas, which handles employment services in the county.
"I was totally caught off-guard by this,'' said Peachey, who initially thought the state's January job loss figure released Friday for the Tampa Bay area was a typo. "But I know we were seeing a significant increase in the number of people coming in, looking for work over the past six months and that wasn't being reflected in the unemployment rate."
Jerry Shaw, senior vice president of developer Opus South Corp. in Tampa, said he had been wondering for some time where all the supposed job growth was taking place.
"We've been misled,'' he said of the phantom employment figures. "We kept shaking our heads over these numbers, but good business people know what's going on. They're not relying on statistics."
Rebecca Rust, economist with the state's Agency for Workforce Innovation, said month-to-month job estimates are based on a small sampling of employers from each sector. At the beginning of each year, the department retroactively adjusts those estimates based on what employers paid in unemployment compensation tax, a far more accurate accounting of the workforce size.
"Data revisions are to be expected,'' Rust said. "When the economy is really strong, the benchmarks are generally up. When the economy slows, the revisions are down. And areas that were high in growth, that had a lot of construction, had further to fall in a slowdown."
Despite the stark discrepancy between estimates and the actual job numbers last year, there is no indication the state intends to change its method of preparing monthly estimates.,
"Our customers want data in a timely fashion, so we do the preliminary estimates based on employer surveys," Rust said. The revised figures, calculated once a year, are available on the state's Web site but are not issued in news releases.
After five years of Florida boasting lower unemployment rates than the national average, data released Friday showed the lines are converging. The revised numbers show the state's unemployment at 4.6 percent in January, edging up toward the national figure that month of 4.9 percent. January's jobless rate was Florida's highest since October 2004.
Meanwhile, national figures released Friday showed that the economy shed 63,000 jobs in February, the fastest falloff in the labor market in five years, even as the U.S. unemployment rate fell to 4.8 percent.
"I haven't seen a job report this recessionary since the last recession,'' said Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., "This is a picture of a labor market becoming clearly infected by the contagion from the rest of the economy."
Sean Snaith, economist at the University of Central Florida, called it "economic purgatory," but held out hope for recovery.
"I'll admit it's a bit of a witches' brew with high energy prices, a housing market recession and credit market turmoil, but if we can get to the second half of the year when the stimulus hits, we may be able to pull out,'' he said.
"Otherwise," he added, "I'm getting fitted for a Goofy costume."
Reviewing the areas of strength in Florida's economy, David Denslow, University of Florida economist, said he was pleasantly surprised to see both retail and tourism employment remain steady in January. While health care is likely to remain a reliable source of jobs, he warned that education and government, strong job generators in the past, will be constrained this year due to tighter state and local budgets.
Even construction, which accounted for 75 percent of the job losses in the state, is likely to continue to post declines, Denslow said.
"As projects now under way are completed, the job numbers will fall more," he said. "They're going to get worse before they get better."
Temple Terrace resident A. Colin Flood hopes Denslow is wrong. Last year, when the state was boasting red-hot job growth in the Tampa area, Flood was frantically searching for work as a technical writer.
"I'd never really had to hunt for a job before, but things just came to a halt,'' said Flood, 49, who finally landed work with a Tampa software developer. "The job came just in time to save my house. But most of the people I know who were looking for work still can't find it."
Information from the New York Times was used in this report. Kris Hundley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996.