When we hear "high speed" these days, thoughts go to the promised bullet train between Tampa and Orlando. But the fastest acceleration in the state still belongs to our soaring jobless rate.
All aboard. Fasten your seat belts. The latest numbers, out this past week, continue to display pedal-to-the-metal upticks in unemployment data. Statewide, the jobless rate climbed to 11.9 percent in January from 8.7 percent a year ago and, hard to believe, just 5 percent in January 2008. That's a doubling, and then some, in only two short years.
Talking to labor economists these days ought to come with a warning for the fainthearted: Proceed at your own risk. These are the job market number crunchers who watched in horror as the country so quickly lost more than 8 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007.
They know how long it may take to climb out of this economic abyss.
"It's hellish," concedes labor economist Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. "When you see how deep is the hole, it's a nightmare."
Barring an overnight 21st century equivalent of the industrial revolution, creating enough jobs to match those lost in just the past 800-plus days will undoubtedly take a long, long time.
We're a clever nation. What's the magic bullet?
Experts debate the effectiveness of every job-creating (or job-saving) idea. They range from traditional tax cuts, tax credits, economic incentives, worker retraining and job sharing to reduced working hours, wage cuts, and extended unemployment benefits.
They also seek help from business recruiting packages, new rounds of federal stimulus funds, federal job corps, Build America Bonds and direct government lending to small businesses.
They're even talking — especially in Florida — about further unleashing the gambling industry as an economic engine, beyond the current deal with the Seminole Indian Tribe.
Three days ago, executives from the Las Vegas Sands, operator of the Venetian and Palazzo on the Vegas strip, pitched sympathetic Tallahassee lawmakers on the idea of creating up to six gambling destinations in Florida. Each would cost $2 billion or more to build and, the Vegas chieftains claim, lure gamblers from several continents.
Other job creation proposals from Florida Gov. Charlie Crist include $57.4 million in corporate income tax cuts, restoring a tax holiday on back-to-school clothes and supplies, delaying an increase in the state unemployment compensation tax and cutting red tape for licenses and permits.
Last week also saw two investment funds unveil new promises to invest in Florida companies. The Florida Opportunity Fund, created in 2007 to supplement venture-capital funds here with state money, now totals $23 million. On Thursday, the fund said it will commit up to $4 million to the Stonehenge Growth Equity venture firm.
Stonehenge already has invested in more than 17 young Florida firms from Tampa's Pilgrim Software to Melbourne sensor company Authentec.
And two days ago at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp unveiled a new fund — a partnership of Orlando's Florida Mezzanine Fund and CapitalSouth Partners — to serve as one of the state's largest sources of private venture funding. One immediate investment in a Fort Lauderdale health care products company, the new fund bragged Thursday, could generate 200 new jobs in the coming year.
Enter economic reality. On Friday, another health care business, UnitedHealth Group in Tamarac near Fort Lauderdale, effectively erased those 200 potential jobs by announcing plans to lay off 191 of its own employees.
One step forward, one step back.
To be sure, all these employment ideas, deals and partnerships help Florida. A bit.
In the past year, Florida lost 303,200 jobs. So just to recapture one year of statewide job losses, Florida would have to generate an average of 25,277 jobs every month for 12 months.
Tampa Bay alone would have to generate 3,492 jobs every month for a full year to recoup the 41,900 it lost last year.
That's how daunting the comeback will be in the Sunshine State.
Tampa Bay's jobless rate hit a dizzying 13.1 percent in January. That's up from 9.5 percent the previous January and more than double the 5.3 percent of January 2008.
Two Januaries ago, only 69,069 folks were considered jobless in this metro area. A year later, January 2009, that number was 123,807. This January it was 171,453.
These are big, getting-bigger-fast numbers. Federal, state and private efforts so far feel like fingers plugging leaks in a dike.
So, Floridians, keep plugging. What choice do we have?
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]