Florida's unemployment rate dropped to 9.9 percent in December, the first time the rate has fallen below 10 percent in more than two and a half years.
The last time the state's unemployment rate was in the single digits, entertainer Michael Jackson was alive, the last three Harry Potter movies had yet to hit the theaters and an ex-health care executive named Rick Scott had yet to become a politician.
Scott, now Florida's governor, trumpeted news Friday morning of the drop as evidence a recovery is well under way.
"A good way to judge the direction of Florida's economy is to look at the percentage of people who were unemployed one year ago and now have jobs," Scott said in prepared remarks. "Today that number is 2.1 percentage points lower than it was in 2010, meaning more of Florida's families are finding jobs."
Some economists cautioned against politicians taking too much credit for a natural economic cycle of recovery.
"Economies don't stay down forever," said Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial. "Recessions are typically followed by recovery, and this was obviously a major recession, so the recovery is a lot more gradual than usual."
The state's workforce grew by 7,300 jobs in December, raising the total job count by 113,900 for the year. Tampa Bay led the way among all regions, gaining a net 28,500 jobs during 2011, up 2.5 percent. The bay area's jobless rate fell to 10 percent, down from 10.3 percent in November.
The jobs market is still dire, especially given that tens of thousands of discouraged workers have temporarily stopped looking for a job and are no longer counted among the jobless.
Add in discouraged workers and part-timers unable to find full-time work, and the unemployment rate would be 17.8 percent.
Still, there's reason for optimism.
"Some of the fundamental ingredients for a sustained recovery are now in place," said Mekael Teshome, an economist with PNC Financial Services Group who tracks the Florida market. "You have stronger confidence; you have stronger corporate profits; and the housing market depression is unwinding."
Teshome was particularly keen on Florida, which he said "could surprise on the upside" this year as job gains broaden beyond tourism and health care.
Such words of optimism were more elusive back in April of 2009, when unemployment was at 9.7 percent, and rising.
Headlines at the time told the story: Profits plummeting 90 percent at St. Petersburg's Raymond James Financial; Walt Disney Co. cutting 1,400 jobs in Florida; and Lazydays' massive RV park in Seffner struggling to meet its debt obligations.
These days, a revived and bullish Raymond James just announced the biggest acquisition in its history while Disney made a company record $5.8 billion in profit in fiscal 2011 with guest spending at its theme parks up 9 percent.
The company has had no major debt since a restructuring two years ago; employment has held steady at about 500 since the middle of last year, and executives were feeling confident enough financially to buy a Tucson dealership last year.
Randy Lay, Lazydays' chief financial officer, described 2011 as a "good year" and predicts 2012 will be a bit better. At the least, Friday's jobs report might bolster his confidence that Florida's recovery is widening.
More jobs were added over the past year in trade, transportation and utilities (up 37,200 jobs) than any other industry.
Not surprisingly, leisure and hospitality and health care were close behind.
But the camp of net job creators now also includes professional and business services, financial activities, manufacturing, and other services.
The biggest losses by far came in government, down nearly 8,000 jobs for the year.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.