Tampa Bay is playing a starring role in the steady, broad-based recovery of Florida's long-suffering jobs market.
The bay area's unemployment rate dipped to 6.9 percent in March, the lowest level in nearly five years, as the region continued its reign as the state's top job creator. Over the last 12 months, Tampa Bay has added 35,900 jobs, more than twice as many as any other Florida metro. Its addition of 11,700 jobs in March alone was second only to Miami-Fort Lauderdale.
"Tampa gets a gold star thus far in 2013 in terms of how the labor market has been faring," said University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith.
The statewide numbers released Friday were likewise encouraging: Florida's jobless rate tumbled to a four-and-a-half-year low of 7.5 percent, down from 7.7 percent in February, as the state added 32,700 jobs over the month. Florida is now up 141,300 jobs compared to March 2012, with government and manufacturing the only areas still shedding thousands of jobs over the year.
Nearly every other industry is on the upswing, led by 42,300 more jobs in trade, transportation and utilities, a broad category that includes everything from gas stations to retail to auto sales.
Gov. Rick Scott, speaking at a Friday morning event in Naples honoring manufacturer Pelican Wire, said the latest figures prove his jobs strategy is working.
"In Florida, our economy is turning around because we focus every day on creating new jobs for our families," he said, noting the state has added 320,000 private sector jobs since he took office a little over two years ago.
In one troubling trend line, Florida's labor force contracted again. Over the past month, the pool of Floridians either in a job or looking for work fell by 18,000 even though the state's 16-and-up civilian population grew by 16,000.
The nagging fear is that many of those who dropped out of the labor force are discouraged workers who have just temporarily stopped looking. Once they start job hunting again, that could drive unemployment back up.
Still, although a shrinking labor pool likely exaggerates the drop in unemployment, it doesn't mean jobs aren't finally coming back, said Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg.
"We're on our way," he said.
For several years, Florida trailed the rest of the country's recovery from the Great Recession. In recent months, the state's unemployment rate has dipped below the national rate, which was at 7.6 percent in March. Florida created more jobs last month than any other state.
The Tampa Bay scene is brighter in part because its economy is more diverse than other Florida metros. It has benefitted from an upward tick in home prices, a rise in exports, more professional and business service jobs and a rejuvenated tourism industry.
As a result, the bay area's unemployment rate has plummeted to 6.9 percent, down from 7.5 percent a month ago and down more than a full percentage point in just two months.
Hillsborough County boasts the lowest rate in the region (6.6 percent). Hernando County persists as the hardest-hit local geography, but its new rate of 8.4 percent is down substantially from a year ago when residents were combatting a jobless rate of 11.6 percent.
Statewide, Monroe retains its bragging right as best-performing county with a rate of 3.8 percent, near the levels Florida enjoyed during its 2006 boom. With a jobless rate of 10 percent, Hendry is the sole Florida county still caught in double-digit unemployment.
Unlike state figures, metro and county figures are not seasonally adjusted and tend to fluctuate more month to month.
The jobless rate still needs to fall considerably more, at least below 6 percent, to signify a healthy economy. And the path ahead may be difficult. Some economists are still bracing for the effects of federal budget cuts and higher payroll taxes to hit the economy in coming months.
In the last couple years, Florida has gone through a discouraging pattern: a strong start to the year followed by a slowdown in which consumers pull back on spending and small businesses hire fewer workers than expected.
"We're staring at the annual spring slump," cautioned Brown, the Raymond James economist.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected]