Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Business

Florida's unemployment rate falls to 6.2 percent but hurdles remain

Florida closed the year on an economic high note, with its unemployment rate tumbling once again in December, reaching a five-and-a-half year low of 6.2 percent.

Tampa Bay did even better, with its jobless rate dipping below 6 percent, a threshold that normally indicates the return of economic vibrancy.

But these are not normal times.

Not when labor force participation remains unusually low, the number of long-term jobless remains abnormally high, and wage growth remains stagnant.

"We're adding jobs at a reasonable pace and if we were at full employment, that would be one thing. But we're not," said Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg. "We'd really like to see much stronger job numbers."

Sean Snaith, an economist with the University of Central Florida, sees 2013 as a good year for Florida, relatively speaking. The state added jobs at a quicker pace as the months progressed and celebrated a "crossover year" by outperforming the national economy after being a laggard throughout the Great Recession.

Florida started the year tied with the national unemployment rate of 7.9 percent. It ended a full half-percentage point lower than the national rate of 6.7 percent.

The problem with that statistic, however, is the unemployment rate may not be as relevant of an economic indicator as it used to be because so many jobless have stopped looking for work. "We can't quite take the decline in the unemployment rate at face value and the same is true nationally," Snaith said.

Over the past year, Florida's labor force participation rate inched up only slightly, from 55.7 percent to 55.9 percent, remaining far below pre-recession levels. A debate has been raging in Florida and nationwide over how many of those labor force dropouts are aging baby boomers who retired, how many are discouraged job seekers and how many will re-enter the labor market someday, making competition for jobs even more fierce.

Florida added 14,100 jobs over the month, a noticeable improvement from November but shy of the bump some expected and barely enough to keep up with its growing population.

Most of the growth came in South Florida, driven by 22,300 new jobs overall in the broad Miami-Fort Lauderdale region. Tampa Bay added a mere 1,300 jobs in the month, but still held on to its crown as the biggest metro job creator year over year, up 35,400 jobs.

Hillsborough and Pinellas counties continue to lead Tampa Bay, with jobless rates in each county falling from 6.1 percent to 5.7 percent. Hernando, long the hardest-hit county in the area, came in at 7.4 percent.

Statewide, the fastest growing industry is trade, transportation and utilities — a broad category that includes most retail — which has added 60,300 jobs year over year. But other than government, nearly every industry is now gaining jobs.

Modern Enterprise Solutions, a Tampa-based reseller of data networking and telecom hardware, is among local companies on a hiring spree. "As the economy has rebounded, we're busier than ever," MES co-founder Neil Birner said.

In a YouTube promotional video touting the release of December's employment report, Florida Gov. Rick Scott called it "a great news day for Florida families."

That assessment, however, depends on whom you ask.

"Things are getting gradually better for the short-term unemployed, but for those unemployed a couple of years now, they're in a world of hurt," said Brown of Raymond James.

Florida, along with New Jersey and the District of Columbia, remains one of the few places where long-term jobless still make up more than 45 percent of the unemployed. The state's average duration of unemployment was about 48 weeks between January and October last year, the highest in the country.

Ed Scheinfeldt, a retired federal employee with the Department of Defense, has been actively looking for work since June. One problem he finds are deceptive Internet job sites that appear to be flush with jobs that are actually not being filled.

"I also see the same job listed on multiple Internet job sites, which makes it appear as if there are more jobs than there really are," Scheinfeldt said.

Florida is also battling a disastrous makeover of its jobless benefits website that has thwarted thousands from getting their checks and fueled the trend of unemployed workers giving up their search. When people stop seeking work, they are no longer counted among the unemployed or as part of the labor force at all.

Even with Florida's stronger job creation, it's having trouble keeping up with its growing population.

Between December 2012 and December 2013, the state's working-age population, 16-and-up, swelled by 214,000 as Florida returned to its traditional status as a moving van mecca. In that same period, however, the state's labor force dwindled by 9,000.

"The population here is growing faster than the nation as a whole," Brown said. "It's hard to make a dent in the problem when we're just not adding (jobs) fast enough."

The latest figures, which include a revision, are more encouraging. They show the state's labor force has been growing again the past three months — though still not as fast as its broader population. In December, Florida's working-age population grew by another 17,000 while its labor pool only grew by 7,000.

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