Florida's unemployment rate jumped to 8.8 percent in July, the first increase in a year, a development that could have broad political implications.
Coming just 10 days before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, the news is a blow both to President Barack Obama's re-election efforts and the political fortunes of Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney will likely use the increase in unemployment to support his narrative of a state economy suffering under 3 ½ years of Obama policies.
Obama faces the prospect of flat to rising unemployment in all battleground states, not just Florida. Forty-four states recorded unemployment rate increases in July while only two small states (Idaho and Rhode Island) and the District of Columbia saw their rates drop. Four states had no change.
Scott, who has made job creation the centerpiece of his administration, plans to talk to convention delegates about how Florida has outperformed the country under his Republican administration because of less red tape and streamlined government. But Friday's report dents his talking points. The gap between Florida's rate and the national rate (8.3 percent) widened again.
The presidential race has become an economic focal point, with markets and companies uneasy about the political polarization and legislative gridlock.
It's a key reason that employers are so reluctant to fill jobs quickly, says Charlie Fridley, a Sarasota-based recruiter who works primarily with manufacturers.
"It's kind of a wait and see," said Fridley, managing partner of the Beneva Group, part of the MRI Network. "Smaller businesses are wondering if there will be a dramatic (impact) with the health care (legislation) … and if the Republicans are going to get in, they think maybe some of this stuff is going to get changed back."
Regardless of their reasoning, he said, employers are being very slow and deliberate in recruiting.
"Two or three years ago, they would hire a good draft choice. Now if they don't find exactly who they are looking for, they continue to look."
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Economists discourage drawing too many conclusions from one month's job report. But given Florida's unemployment was flat a month earlier, the jump from 8.6 percent in June to 8.8 percent in July supports the notion that the already-slow recovery has lost steam.
Making matters worse: already-anemic job creation slipped into reverse last month. Florida lost 3,300 net jobs from June to July. Workers in financial fields and professional and technical services took the biggest hit.
Tampa Bay's jobless rate jumped from 9 percent to 9.4 percent as the region shed 7,900 jobs. Hernando County still has the highest unemployment rate in the bay area at 11.3 percent, but Citrus County suffered the biggest monthly jump in unemployment, rising from 10.3 percent to 10.8 percent.
Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James, said he still thinks the economic recovery will continue its slow slog out of the Great Recession. Housing has gained its footing; Florida is leading the country in online job ads gained over the month; and tax revenues have been growing every month for more than two years.
But Friday's report was a wake-up call that Florida's economy is still very precarious.
"You're seeing Florida mimic a lot of what's going on in the U.S. That decline (in the unemployment rate) appears to have stalled," Brown said.
"The economy is growing fast enough where we're just about keeping up with the (population) growth in working-age people, but we're not making up lost ground from the recession."
Among the most troubling trends: Florida's population grew by 216,000 people aged 16 and up over the past year, but its labor force only grew by 28,000. That means many of those people could be waiting on the sidelines for the economy to improve before re-entering the job market.
By the state's own estimates, the unemployment rate would be 9.7 percent if it included "discouraged" jobless who have temporarily given up looking for work. Add in those who are working part-time but seeking full-time work and others "marginally attached" to a job and the rate would be 16.6 percent.
Florida economic development officials focused on the positives, namely that job growth has been trending upward in year-over-year comparisons for the past two years. Since July 2011, the state has added a net 69,900 jobs; Tampa Bay leads all major metros, up 20,500 jobs over the year.
More than 16,700 government jobs have been cut since December, but the state has added more than 130,000 private sector jobs over the same time.
"While the unemployment rate can vary from month to month, Florida continues to see positive private sector job growth," Scott said. "My goal remains the same, to make Florida the number one business destination in the world by improving the state's economic climate, highlighting our talented and skilled workforce and getting Floridians back to work."
To underscore the triumphs, the governor came to Tampa on Friday morning for the unveiling of a new facility for a real estate appraisal management company that promises to add as many as 300 new jobs here over three years.
StreetLinks Lender Solutions, which is based in Indianapolis, launched its Florida operations a year ago at Netpark Tampa Bay. The company, which now employs about 190 in the bay area, said the new jobs will be in real estate appraisal and data processing.
"When companies like StreetLinks choose to expand in our state, it is evidence Florida is moving in the right direction," Scott said.
When asked if the state was still on track to reach Scott's goal of 700,000 jobs in seven years, Scott said, "we'll clearly get to more than 700,000 jobs over the next seven years. The state's headed in the right direction."
Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected]
While the unemployment rate can vary from month to month, Florida continues to see positive private sector job growth."
Gov. Rick Scott
The Florida unemployment rate rose from 8.6 percent to 8.8 percent in July, as the state lost another 3,300 jobs."
Mitt Romney campaign