Need a reason to kick off the holiday celebration early? Look at the latest snapshot of Florida's economy.
Florida's unemployment rate tumbled from 8.5 percent to a four-year low of 8.1 percent in November, tying the biggest one-month plunge in 20 years.
A year ago, the jobless rate stood at 10.1 percent.
Even more encouraging: Payrolls statewide rose a strong 24,500 jobs this past month, and Florida is now up 83,300 jobs compared to November 2011, according to a report released Friday by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. The monthly gain was second only to North Carolina, which grew by 30,600 jobs.
Tampa Bay is leading all Florida metros, gaining 22,900 jobs over the past year.
The bay area's jobless rate inched down slightly this month, from 8.2 percent to 8.1 percent. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties ticked down to 7.9 percent. Long-suffering Hernando County improved the most as it fell from 9.8 to 9.6 percent.
"For many of Florida's families during this holiday season there could be no greater gift than a regular paycheck," Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement. "Florida's economy continues to improve. … We're now over 200,000 private-sector jobs created in the two years since I took office with the largest drop in unemployment in the country."
Economists have repeatedly cautioned that this year's drop in unemployment both nationally and in Florida looks better than reality. That's because the labor force has shrunk as thousands have temporarily suspended a job search and are no longer counted among the jobless. In the latest report, the size of Florida's labor force was virtually unchanged, even though the state's population of 16-and-up residents grew by 18,000.
University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith described the latest data on Florida's economy as "very encouraging."
"When we add this labor market data to the encouraging signs from the housing sector, it begins to reveal a mosaic of strengthening recovery in Florida," he said.
Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg, has long fretted that Florida's recovery would bog down. Friday's numbers made him more optimistic.
"There's a lot of momentum," he said, linking Florida's gains to a broader, national rebound. "A lot of the headwinds we've been facing are slowly fading."
Among the positives: Home prices are rising again; tourism has strengthened; gas prices have fallen to the $3 a gallon range; bank lending has picked up, as the Federal Reserve has made a long-term pledge to keep interest rates low; and state and local government job cuts have abated, so they're no longer a drag on growth.
Brown's outlook is still tempered. There are too many discouraged workers who will re-enter the labor pool at some point, he says. Unemployment is still high enough that employers are able to keep wages stagnant.
Plus, many companies are sticking with part-timers instead of full-time workers in part to avoid health care costs. About six percent of Florida's 9.3-million strong workforce consists of reluctant part-timers who are unable to find full-time work, according to recent calculations from the state.
Brown's biggest concern is whether Washington politicians are able to resolve its "fiscal cliff" crisis, finding common ground to sidestep automatic large tax increases and budget cuts from going into effect in January.
Avert the fiscal cliff, echoed Snaith, and Florida's prospects for 2013 are looking strong.
In the initial phase of Florida's recovery, most of the job creation came in lower-paying retail, health care and tourism positions.
Leisure and hospitality is still the top job generator (up 20,700 jobs over the year). But the state has been adding more higher-paying jobs lately in trade, transportation and utilities; professional and business services; manufacturing and financial activities.
Tampa Bay led all metros in gaining the most professional and business service jobs (up 9,700 jobs), a category that includes everything from accountants and architects to payroll companies and consultants.
The pummelled construction industry is down 3,900 jobs statewide compared to a year ago. But it's digging out of the hole, adding jobs for the past four months, and housing starts are up 60 percent compared to a year ago.
Florida is still well shy of a healthier jobless rate under 6 percent and is playing catchup to the national unemployment rate, which stood at 7.7 percent in November. The road from here to full recovery may be rocky and drawn out if the state's long-term economic forecasts are accurate.
The state's official economic forecast released in November doesn't call for unemployment to reach 7.9 percent until 2015.
In a media conference call Friday afternoon, state economist Rebecca Rust said it was too soon to say whether unemployment may rise again — at least temporarily — as discouraged jobless re-enter the market looking for work and housing goes through more bumps.
"The recovery is expected to be slow simply because of our housing market," said Rust, chief economist with the Department of Economic Opportunity. "We still have high levels of foreclosure."
Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.