Florida's unemployment rate last month took a turn not seen in more than four years.
It went down.
The 12 percent rate retreated from a record 12.3 percent set in March. The state added about 15,500 jobs, nearly half of them short-term positions for the U.S. census count. About 1.1 million people remain jobless.
Friday's upbeat news from the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation ended three straight months of record-shattering increases in unemployment.
More significantly, it was the first monthly decline in the rate since February 2006. Back during those boom times, unemployment bottomed out at 3.3 percent.
Florida's unemployment — fifth highest among the states — still remains at a level not experienced in the last 60 years. And unemployment is widely expected to tick up again during this fragile recovery, particularly as discouraged workers not being counted re-enter an improving job market.
Nevertheless, for many, Friday's report signaled a turnaround.
"Today's numbers are consistent with being in the endgame of this recession and the start of a new recovery," University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith said.
Troy Glaves, president of the West Pasco Board of Realtors, said the improvement ties in with other positive economic trends. Housing sales and retail sales are up. Even his Realtors group just increased membership for the first time in the past 26 months.
"More people are buying houses; more people are renting houses," Glaves said. "We do feel really good about all that."
In a rare reversal, Florida's unemployment rate fell in the same month the U.S. rate rose, from 9.7 percent to 9.9 percent.
The drop was even more pronounced locally.
In the Tampa Bay area, April's unemployment rate fell to 11.9 percent from an adjusted rate of 12.8 percent in March. The estimated number of jobless in the area fell by nearly 12,000 to about 156,300.
Every local county enjoyed the pullback, led by one-percentage point drops in Pasco and Citrus counties. Hernando retained the distinction of having the second-highest unemployment rate among Florida counties despite dropping to 14.3 percent, down from 15.1 percent in March.
Unlike the state data, local figures are not seasonally adjusted, so there is a tendency to show more dramatic monthly swings. April's figures, state officials said, were aided by seasonal hiring in agriculture and tourism numbers.
The turnaround in job creation follows a national trend. This month, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that 290,000 jobs were created nationwide in April, the biggest monthly total in four years.
Agency for Workforce Innovation director Cynthia Lorenzo acknowledged "it will take some time to emerge from this recession."
But she welcomed the tandem news of a lower unemployment rate and higher job creation as "very positive signs."
Economists widely predict unemployment will stay above 10 percent throughout the year and rise a bit more as discouraged workers re-enter the labor pool. Rebecca Rust, chief economist with AWI, which compiles unemployment data and oversees distribution of unemployment benefits, said the state's unemployment rate would top 20 percent if those who have given up a job search or are working part-time because they can't find a full-time job were added to the total.
"We need to have an increase (in job creation) for perhaps four months in a row to say we're on a growth trend," Rust said in a conference call with reporters. "So there's still potential for an increase in the unemployment rate over the months."
With long-term unemployment still at record levels, no one has to tell job hunters like Mike Kilroe of Spring Hill that the market is still nasty.
"I go online every day and send out resumes," said Kilroe, 46, who was laid off in November from a resort where he had worked as an accounting associate. "I'm going to do everything I can. I need a job."
Florida is a long way from returning to a vibrant job market, said Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg.
The recovery is still too fragile, he said, with too many wild cards that could hurt the economy, particularly in Florida: the burgeoning oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico threatening Florida's fishing and tourism industries; the euro crisis triggered by high debt in countries like Greece; sharp sell-offs on the stock market.
April's unemployment report was based on surveys taken before the Deepwater Horizon rig disaster in the gulf. This week, Moody's Investors Service warned that the potential impact of the oil spill on Florida could be worse than the effects of the recession.
Consumers and businesses may have started spending more freely, but if they become fearful again, they'll retreat, Brown said.
"There is still fear of a double-dip (recession), and if enough firms start believing that and laying people off, it could become self-fulfilling," he said. "I think we're probably going to avoid that, but psychology will be very important over the next couple months."
Times staff writers Shary Lyssy Marshall and Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.