Florida's unemployment rate fell to 11.1 percent in March, reaching a level not seen since November 2009 and fostering hope that a demonstrable jobs recovery is finally under way.
The state's jobless rate has steadily improved since peaking at a modern-era record 12 percent in December. In fact, the 0.4 percent decline last month matched February as the biggest monthly drop since 1992.
Tampa Bay's unemployment rate fell to 11 percent, down 1.5 percentage points in just two months.
In a rare move for any governor and for the first time since he took office, Gov. Rick Scott called a Friday morning news conference in Tallahassee to release the new jobless figure.
"While that number is still too high, that is the lowest unemployment rate we've seen in more than a year and represents a nearly 1 percent decrease since I became governor," Scott said. "We're heading in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go."
The state added 22,600 jobs in March, the sixth consecutive month of improvement after a job-shedding purge that lasted three years. Compared to a year ago, Florida is up a net 51,500 jobs, the strongest year-over-year growth since May 2007.
Scott, who made job creation his central campaign theme, stopped short of taking direct credit for the improvement. State economists had long predicted the rate would start dropping this year.
"It certainly is the cyclical nature of recessions," said Rebecca Rust, chief economist with the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation. "So eventually these markets do turn around. It was expected to start improving."
In November, economists said Florida would add 134,200 jobs in 2011. In February, they adjusted that estimate to 132,000, or 11,000 jobs per month.
Florida has added 43,800 jobs in the first three months, many in leisure and hospitality.
"We've seen an encouraging trend," Scott said in prepared remarks. He left without taking questions from the media.
State economists saw the results as mixed. They predicted the unemployment rate wouldn't fall quite as fast, but they also thought job creation would be stronger by now.
"We thought there would be more of an increase in job seekers," Rust said.
To the contrary, instead of gaining job seekers, the state's labor pool has continued to shrink with 14,000 more people dropping out last month.
Some are new retirees; some have left the state. But a certain percentage are discouraged workers who gave up and will likely re-enter the labor market when prospects improve. When they do, that could push the unemployment rate up a couple of tenths of a percentage, University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith said.
Two big monthly drops didn't alter Snaith and Rust's predictions for a very slow recovery overall, with Florida not reaching a more palatable 6 percent unemployment rate until 2018.
The March report "is nothing that would knock your socks off, but it's an indication that we're moving in the right direction," Snaith said.
Muddying the waters this month was a change in methodology.
In a deficit reduction move, the federal government took over the job of calculating and analyzing job data from employers, a task that state economists used to handle.
The switch doesn't affect the unemployment rate calculation, which is drawn from a monthly household survey but it does affect the estimates for job gains and losses, which are drawn from employers.
Rust, the AWI chief economist, said the change will undoubtedly save money and help standardize a hodge-podge of figures that used to come from various state economists. But she expressed concerns about accurately reporting job shifts in metro areas — smaller metro areas in particular.
The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics took more of a "top-down approach" than the state, Rust said, by estimating overall job creation and then spreading it into different industries and regions. Moreover, she's concerned federal economists don't have expertise on situations unique to each state. For instance, they were unaware about the impact of the space shuttle phase-out as well as the fact North Florida typically sees a seasonal job spike in different months than the rest of the state.
Rust said Florida didn't find out about the federal switch until March 24. "It was a last moment change," she said. "We had very little time to get input to them."
On balance, she said, "some state data quality may improve and some may not improve. … We have confidence we'll do everything possible to try to make this successful."
There was some consistency in the handoff between state and federal number-crunchers.
For one, the Orlando metro area continues to dominate among regions, creating 20,400 jobs year over year. Next highest metro is Miami, up 11,900 jobs over the year and a whopping 14,000 jobs just over the month.
Tampa Bay is up 4,800 jobs compared to a month ago but still down 800 jobs compared to a year ago.
Five industries statewide are gaining jobs and five are still in the losing category.
By far, the strongest industry is leisure and hospitality, up 35,300 jobs over the year and 8,200 jobs just in one month. No. 2 is education and health services, up 20,100 jobs from a year ago. Also gaining are professional and business services (including consulting and temp jobs); trade, transportation and utilities; and other services.
On the flip side, industries still losing jobs over the year include construction, information, financial activities, manufacturing and total government.
Rust acknowledged most of the gains are in lower-wage occupations than the ones being lost.
The unemployment rate is based on a monthly household survey which seeks to determine how many unemployed have been actively looking for work over the past four weeks.
It does not include discouraged workers no longer on an active search or those working part-time because they are unable to find full-time jobs. Add those Floridians and the state's unemployment rate would rise another 8.2 percent to a total of 19.3 percent.
Times/Herald staff writer Michael C. Bender contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or [email protected]