Florida's unemployment rate dropped to 11.7 percent in May, the second monthly decline in a row since the state struck a post-World War II record of 12.3 percent in March.
In the Tampa Bay area, the jobless rate fell to 11.7 percent compared to an adjusted 12 percent in April, with rates trending down in every area county.
But stow the bubbly.
A gain of 20,300 jobs statewide over the month was due entirely to May being the peak hiring month for part-time U.S. census jobs. Take away some 32,300 census jobs created last month — many of which are expected to end within a few months — and Florida would have been in job loss territory again.
In other words, we're still waiting for the private sector to ramp up hiring.
"So far, we're not seeing any indication that private growth has gotten under way," said Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness. "The census has made these numbers look better than the underlying state of the economy."
"At face value, this is welcome (news), but it's not exactly time to pop the champagne corks here," said Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg,
The back-to-back drops in the unemployment rate mean the March record was likely "either the peak or pretty close to the peak," Brown said. Even so, "we still don't expect to see a lot of improvement anytime soon."
In fact, he predicts unemployment will climb again over the summer as almost all census jobs disappear by September.
Typically, unemployment also rises once more people are convinced a recovery is under way and re-enter the labor force. We haven't reached that point yet. To the contrary, a drop in the state's labor force last month indicates more people have stopped looking for work.
Ryan Skubis, Florida district director for staffing agency Robert Half International, describes the hiring climate as "choppy."
For the first time, though, Skubis sees the picture as more positive than negative. More part-timers are being converted into full-timers, he said, and demand is picking up in a few industries, such as logistics/transportation and manufacturing.
Health care continues to be the strongest industry, generating more than 25,000 jobs in Florida over the past year. Of the top 20 job openings in the state based on online ads, half are in the medical field. The most in-demand option: registered nurse, with 13,000 job openings.
In recent months, the economy has shown a smattering of promising signs. Factory orders have risen; software spending and personal income levels are up; credit card debt and the number of mass layoffs are down.
But there are enough remaining headwinds to make economic recovery an agonizingly slow process.
More community banks are expected to fail, overwhelmed by troubled commercial real estate loans. A slight pickup in home sales has stalled amid the end of tax credits targeting first-time home buyers. Foreclosures rose again last month. Housing starts are down over the last month, but up compared to last year.
Rebecca Rust, chief economist with the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, which oversees unemployment issues, said such mixed signals are common when bumping along the bottom of a recession.
Looming as one of the biggest uncertainties is the impact of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Rust said the spill has the "potential for significant job losses" in a vast range of industries — from fish and seafood to tourism to transportation services.
A group of state economists meets next month to sort through the haze and project where Florida's unemployment rate is heading in the coming months and years. "I know it will be a very difficult estimate for them," Rust said.
The group previously forecast the state will likely not return to a more healthy unemployment rate in the mid single-digits until 2018.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.