Florida still losing ground in wages despite uptick in jobs

Florida is adding jobs again, but they are clustered in lower paying categories.

The drop in Florida unemployment masks a troubling trend: The new jobs continue to pay far less than the ones that have been lost.

The state added 114,000 jobs last year. But the bulk of them paid on average about 25 percent less than the jobs that disappeared, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of jobs and industry wage data.

Count Tampa resident Russ Muncy among the victims.

He enjoyed a successful 30-year career in civil engineering, despite the lack of a college degree, and was earning more than $75,000 a year when he lost his job in 2009.

Since then, Muncy has exhausted his unemployment benefits and finances during a fruitless job search. He has headed back to college, while only able to find a part-time job in the service industry to help cover expenses.

"It's close to minimum wage. It should be a lot higher, naturally," said Muncy, now 64. "There are a lot of people that are just taking advantage of people looking for work, so they bring them in at a low wage."

Wage deflation has been a recurring theme in the wake of the Great Recession.

A year ago, the Times performed a similar exercise comparing wages for jobs created versus wages for jobs lost across major industries in 2010.

Back then, the state was still losing more jobs than it was adding. But the pay differential told a similar tale: Average wages of new jobs were 31 percent lower than jobs that had disappeared.

The economic recovery grew and broadened during 2011. Florida created 10 times more jobs than it lost, and in a bright sign some higher-paying industries like financial services and manufacturing started hiring again.

Nevertheless, many of the new jobs are still clustered in the low-wage spectrum: retail clerks, theme park workers and restaurant help.

And which industries are still losing jobs? The big three are government, construction and information — all industries that pay annual wages north of $40,000 on average.

The situation is a sharp departure from prerecession Florida, when then-Gov. Jeb Bush led the charge to bring high-tech, high-paying jobs to the state. At the time, call center jobs were being vilified. These days, they're celebrated.

Lower-paying industries are dominating job creation, and many of the new jobs are in lower-paid occupations within those industries, according to a report in July by the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group.

Occupations that saw the biggest growth nationally between the first quarter of 2010 and 2011 were in retail sales (median hourly wage of $10.72); office clerks (hourly wage of $13.21); and cashiers (hourly wage of $8.83).

Occupations that saw the biggest losses in the same time span were managers (median hourly wage of $28.30), computer scientists and system analysts (hourly wage of $29.15) and human resources and training (hourly wage of $21.71).

The National Employment Law Project hasn't crunched 2011 numbers yet to see if the wage discrepancy persisted nationwide throughout the year, either by occupation or industry. But Christine Riordan, a policy analyst with the group, believes the difference may not be as great as a year ago simply because more higher-paying industries have begun adding jobs.

The country closed 2011 with a net gain of construction jobs, for example.

Yet, even the re-emergence of dormant, historically higher-paying industries is no guarantee that wages will bounce back, not in an environment of 8.3 percent national unemployment where employers still hold more cards than employees.

Consider new hires within the auto industry. Amid union concessions and financial pressures, "entry-level wages are literally half of what they were prerecession," Riordan said. "Instead of $20 an hour, it's now $14."

The same thing is happening on a local level.

Muncy, the civil engineer, said he has seen the county hire back some long-idled contractors for road projects, but they're receiving less money.

"They've lowered the starting pay. They'll have a pay range, but anyone hired goes in at the lowest amount," he said. "I don't blame them, to tell the truth. That's just the way business works."

Rick Joudrey of Lutz has already learned that lesson.

Joudrey, 57, used to earn about $200,000 a year designing and building communities before being laid off in 2008.

He sold real estate for a while during his three-year job search. After "a couple thousand resumes," he finally landed a promising job four months ago with a site development company, though the pay is roughly half of what he used to make and bonuses are gone.

"I felt the growth of the company and the position itself justified the reduced salary," he said. "You have to think that way these days. A job is a job."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or [email protected]