Florida appears headed toward a steady but slow economic recovery, enjoying seven straight months of job growth and falling below the psychological barrier of 1 million jobless statewide for the first time in 18 months.
Adding nearly 40,000 jobs over the past year has pushed the state's unemployment rate down to 10.8 percent, still alarmingly high but substantially below the record of 12 percent just four months ago, according to the monthly state job report released Friday.
Online job postings are surging. Some recruiters in industries such as IT and engineering say the days of multiple job offers are back.
"Our interview activity has more than doubled since the beginning of the year," said Phil Petrillo, president of Management Recruiters of St. Petersburg, which tries to match managers with jobs in the $60,000 to $200,000 pay range. "The sense of urgency on the part of hiring companies seems to be getting back to what it was maybe three years ago."
Will the momentum continue?
High gas prices, anticipated layoffs of teachers and other government workers, a stubbornly-depressed housing market and the spectre of rising interest rates are all threatening to slow down Florida's recovery, or, in the worst case, derail it.
Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg, said the economy is more likely to face "a slow patch" in coming months than a double-dip recession.
The economy would have to grow around 5 percent to bring unemployment down substantially. Economists have been anticipating half of that growth.
"It's not horrible," Brown said, "but we've got a lot of people to get back to work."
Still, Floridians had plenty to feel good about after the jobs report.
At 10.8 percent, down from 11.1 percent a month earlier, Florida's unemployment rate is now at its lowest level since September 2009. The state added 14,900 jobs over the month, many of them tourism and hospitality workers.
Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay area improved to an unemployment rate of 10.5 percent, down from 11 percent in March.
Compared to a year ago, Florida is up by 39,200 jobs. The Tampa Bay area has added 7,800 jobs, third-best growth rate among metro regions in the state.
The jobless rate looks slightly better than reality when one considers about 35,000 people have left the labor market since December. Some had left for good; some of them had exhausted unemployment benefits and temporarily stopped looking for work. When those discouraged workers re-enter the job hunt, it could push up the unemployment rate again.
In a media conference call Friday, Rebecca Rust, chief economist for the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, downplayed concern that the number of discouraged workers is growing. Most of the 34,000 people who were no longer counted as unemployed last month wound up finding new jobs, she said. "When you look at the labor force indicators over the year, the numbers look very, very good."
Rust's biggest concern is the housing market.
One in 10 Florida homes is reportedly vacant and the state has the highest mortgage delinquency rate in the country — both signs that the foreclosure crisis isn't abating yet. Moreover, it takes 619 days on average to clear a foreclosure in Florida, far higher than most states.
Until foreclosures move through the system, housing values won't recover, Rust said. That means people will have trouble selling their homes or refinancing, which means less money to spend to spur the economy.
Another concern she cited is an ongoing mismatch between available jobs and skills of job seekers. Companies involved in manufacturing technology in aviation, mobile applications, data security, and information technology have all had trouble finding suitable workers in-state.
By far, the industry enjoying the fastest growth continues to be leisure and hospitality, up 39,400 jobs compared to April, 2010. The increase underscores one of the harsher realities of Florida's recession and recovery: Most of its job losses have come in higher-paying industries (i.e. construction, finance and government) while job gains have been in predominantly lower-paying industries (i.e. leisure, home health aids and retail).
Construction remains the hardest-hit industry, down 20,400 jobs over the year. Among encouraging signs, Florida manufacturers have racked up three consecutive months of job growth, and the industry is now down only 600 jobs compared to a year ago.
Even with the improvement in jobs, Florida still suffers from the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the country, much higher than the U.S. rate of 9 percent. A group of statewide economists has predicted Florida won't get down to a more comfortable level around 6 percent until at least 2018.
"We're seeing gradual improvements, but there's still significant healing to go, and it's a process that will take years," University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith said Friday.
But at least the state is heading in the right direction. Snaith's assessment: "Our diagnosis has been upgraded from 'critical' to 'serious.' "