Florida's unemployment rate fell sharply in February to 11.5 percent — the biggest monthly drop since 1992 — with the state adding jobs year-over-year at the fastest pace in nearly four years.
The Tampa Bay metro area did even better, with unemployment falling a full percentage point to 11.5 percent.
Florida's workforce swelled by a net 22,700 jobs over the month, the fifth straight month of job gains, the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation (AWI) reported Friday.
But optimism was muted by another troubling trend: About 13,000 Floridians dropped out of the labor force last month. Nationally, labor force participation is already hovering at a 27-year low.
Rebecca Rust, AWI's chief economist, said there is no breakdown of how many of the dropouts have retired or left the workforce for good versus discouraged job seekers who will resume their search when market conditions improve, driving unemployment up again.
"It's likely reflecting people whose unemployment insurance benefits have run out so they've given up looking for a job and are therefore not counted as unemployed," said Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg.
The bottom line: Florida's economy is "moving in the right direction again. It's positive news," Brown said. "(But) it's not quite as strong as the headline drop would suggest."
Despite seeing its jobless rate fall from 11.9 percent in January, Florida is still tracking much higher than the national average of 8.9 percent, and its recovery is expected to lag. Florida's rate, third-highest in the country behind Nevada and California, reflects just under 1.1 million jobless Floridians out of a workforce of nearly 9.3 million.
Sean Snaith, an economist and director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness, compared the state's slow-growth economy to an infant taking baby steps before learning how to sprint.
"This is how we anticipated that the labor market recovery would play itself out in Florida – slow, very measured growth in the beginning of the year, then picking up speed as 2011 continues," Snaith said.
In a conference call with reporters Friday afternoon, Rust described the state as being in "a weak recovery, unfortunately."
But there are several signs its slow momentum is starting to build:
• Five industries added jobs year over year, up from three a month ago and much better than the height of the recession when health care was the only sector in growth mode. Leisure and hospitality expanded by 26,100 jobs, nearly 3 percent, topping health care's addition of 23,600 jobs.
Leading the way month-to-month was an increase of 13,800 jobs in professional and business services, a category that includes some companies bringing on temp workers as a precursor to full-time hires. Education and health services added 11,400 jobs, most of them related to ambulatory health care, outpatient clinics, medical labs and doctor offices.
• The number of job postings on the Internet increased to 236,000, with the most openings in nursing, retail and information technology.
• Fourteen of the state's 22 metro areas posted over-the-year job gains, led by Orlando with a surge of 22,900 jobs.
In adding 6,300 jobs compared to last year, the Tampa Bay area ranked as the third-strongest metro region behind Orlando and Miami. Education and health care gave the region its biggest boost, Rust said. Among local counties, both Citrus County and hardest-hit Hernando County were top performers, each dropping 1.3 percentage points. Citrus fell to 12.1 percent and Hernando to 13.9 percent.
Unlike state figures, regional and county data are not seasonally adjusted. That means numbers tend to fluctuate more month to month and are a less reliable gauge of economic strength. The February numbers benefitted from more short-term jobs in tourism and agriculture. Over the past year, Florida has added 32,700 jobs, up a half percentage point from February 2010. That's the strongest annual growth rate since May 2007.
"This decrease in Florida's unemployment rate, combined with continued job growth, is welcome news and provides additional evidence that our economy is getting back on track," said Cynthia Lorenzo, director of the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, which compiles unemployment data.
Florida hit a modern-era record 12 percent unemployment in December 2010.
The rate only reflects those who say they have been actively been seeking work when surveyed. The state's current underemployment rate — which includes discouraged workers no longer looking as well as part-time workers seeking full-time jobs — would be close to 20 percent, Rust said.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or email@example.com.