Merry? No. But Florida's job outlook is at least bright compared to where we were.
The state's unemployment rate continued a steady, yearlong retreat by falling to 10 percent in November, reaching its lowest point in 21/2 years.
The drop, down from a revised 10.4 percent rate in October, comes as employers statewide continue to add jobs at a cautious pace, according to Friday's report from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. Last month, Florida gained 8,500 jobs, which pushes the state up 120,000 jobs since January.
In December, 2010, Florida unemployment peaked at 12 percent.
In a statement, Gov. Rick Scott touted the news as evidence "Florida is moving in the right direction" and said it reinforces his mission of streamlining government and eliminating "burdensome" regulations.
Others were left underwhelmed.
University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith said the persistent drop in the unemployment rate is deceptive. Each month, more job seekers give up looking for work and are no longer counted as jobless.
Moreover, Snaith said, the number of people working part-time but seeking full-time work is still high.
"As seemingly large as the drop in unemployment was, it's still indicative of a labor market that's struggling to build momentum," said Snaith, director of UCF's Institute for Economic Competitiveness.
Fourteen of the state's 22 metro areas are in positive job territory from a year ago, with Tampa Bay at the head of the pack. The bay area has added 36,900 jobs over the past year, up 2.4 percent.
Tampa Bay's unemployment rate eased slightly to 10.3 percent, down from a revised 10.4 percent a month earlier. Among area counties, Hillsborough was the only one to fall into the single digits, coming in at 9.8 percent. Hernando County, with a jobless rate of 13.1 percent, remains the hardest-hit county in the region and third worst statewide.
Unlike state figures, regional and county calculations are not seasonally adjusted for hiring patterns like tourism and agriculture, so they're viewed as less reliable.
The national unemployment rate was 8.6 percent in November.
Both the Florida and U.S. jobs picture share the same troubling trend, however. The number of people in the labor pool — an estimate of those either working or looking for work — is far below what it would be given the current population.
Compared to a year ago, Florida's labor pool has fallen by 41,000 even though the state's population for 16-year-olds and up has risen by 141,000.
Some of those who dropped out of the labor pool are retired or disabled, but many are discouraged workers who are temporarily sidelined. When the economy picks up, some of those people will start looking for work again, which will increase competition and potentially stall or reverse the downward trajectory of Florida's unemployment rate.
Amid the lingering effects of the recession, a group of statewide economists who met earlier this week stuck with their predictions that unemployment could trend up slightly next year. The Florida Economic Estimating Conference envisions a protracted recovery, with unemployment not dropping to 8.7 percent until 2014 and not falling to a more healthy 6 percent before the year 2020.
Much shorter-term, for this month at least, there are a few reasons to stay optimistic.
For one, Florida has added jobs at a faster pace than the rest of the country for the third month in a row. Plus, the statewide recovery is broader, with more industries adding jobs. Trade, transportation and utilities supplanted tourism as the top-gaining sector, adding 35,900 jobs over the past 12 months. Many of the new trade jobs were in clothing and accessory stores.
Education and health services, leisure and hospital, professional and business services and manufacturing are all in growth mode as well. On the flip side, federal, state and local government remains the biggest job loser, down a combined 12,300 jobs year over year.
Rebecca Rust, chief economist with the state Department of Economic Opportunity, said overall Florida's job performance has been better than expected. But she's keeping her enthusiasm in check until the state moves past its surge in foreclosures and housing prices start rising again.
"The housing market is still the component holding the economy back from growing further," she said.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.