Sunday, February 18, 2018
Business

Florida unemployment rate falls to 8.5 percent

Goodbye, summer slump.

Florida's job market is squarely back in recovery mode, according to an upbeat employment report for October, which was released Friday. Among encouraging signs:

• Florida's unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent last month, reaching the lowest point in nearly four years.

• Tampa Bay's jobless rate plummeted from 8.8 percent to 8.2 percent, with even long-suffering Hernando County finally dipping down into single-digit unemployment for the first time since October 2008.

• The state added 14,700 jobs over the month while the number of unemployed Floridians fell by 20,000, knocking the total number of jobless below 800,000.

• Even construction, the hardest-hit industry of all, has added jobs two straight months as the housing market improves.

The state's unemployment rate still lags the national number of 7.9 percent and remains far shy of 6 percent, the upper end of what typifies a healthy economy.

Still, Mekael Teshome, an economist with PNC Financial Services, is confident Florida has positive momentum.

"The healing of the labor market is genuine," Teshome said. "The recovery is for real in our view."

Florida's numbers are consistent with the "persistent and moderate" recovery throughout the country, with the latest national job creation figures beating expectations.

Teshome doesn't fear the gradual recovery will get derailed by looming uncertainties like the fiscal cliff facing the national budget, turmoil in the Middle East and Europe slipping into recession again. "We do have a number of headwinds that will create some volatility," he forecasts, "but fundamentally, we're in a recovery mode."

Doug Arms, senior vice president in Tampa for Ajilon Professional Staffing, said the report validates what he has been hearing from his clients for a while. "The need for skilled employees has never been greater," he said. "Statistically, things are clearly better than they were."

The problem, he says, is that it's hard for people to feel better about a slowly improving economy when they're earning less money and still queasy about job security.

Overall, Florida is up 67,600 jobs year over year. Tampa Bay has added 19,300 jobs over that time, making it runner-up to Orlando as the top job-creating Florida metro.

Professional and business services topped all industries, gaining 25,600 jobs since October 2011. State and local government remained the biggest loser, shedding 12,900 jobs year over year, even though it added a net 2,600 jobs this past month.

Gov. Rick Scott, who has been aggressively pushing government job cuts, keyed in on the creation of 12,100 private sector jobs in October as the most encouraging number, particularly as the holidays are approaching.

"We are creating an environment that fosters job creation, economic development and provides a skilled workforce," he said in a statement. "My number one goal is to create jobs for Florida families and get this state back to work. There is still more work that needs to be done, but I'm confident we're on the right path."

State economists have said the dramatic drop in Florida's jobless rate from 10.2 percent a year ago can be deceptive. Thousands of discouraged workers have temporarily given up looking for work, so they are no longer counted in the state's labor force and are not factored into unemployment calculations.

Nevertheless, October was strong on that front as well. The state's labor force grew by 40,000 over the month, more than offsetting a growth of 20,000 in the age 16-and-up population.

Rebecca Rust, chief economist with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, said that likely means more discouraged workers are finally re-entering the workforce.

Rust cited a labor breakdown that shows the percentage of new entrants and re-entrants into the labor market has been heading up the last two months, while the percentage of those who have lost their jobs is trending down.

"All of those are positive signs, and we hope those trends will continue in the next several months," she said.

Florida still has a long way to go tackling the dual threats of lower wages and discouraged workers, let alone adding enough new jobs to keep up with its growing population. Over the past year, Florida's labor force has grown by just 63,000 even though its 16-and-up population grew by 215,000.

One indication of how deep the hole is came in a separate report Friday from the Hamilton Project, which examines the number of jobs the economy needs to create to return to prerecession employment levels while absorbing those who enter the labor force each month.

The current "jobs gap" for the country is 11.1 million, according to the report. For its part, Florida would need to create 991,000 jobs to get back to prerecession employment levels. That's second only to California.

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

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