Florida's unemployment rate drops, but so does the labor pool

At first glance, the news is positive, but economists warn of other trends.
Gov. Rick Scott pointed to the Tampa Bay area's job growth and said that while the state's news is good, “we're not finished.'' Associated Press
Gov. Rick Scott pointed to the Tampa Bay area's job growth and said that while the state's news is good, “we're not finished.''Associated Press
Published December 20 2013
Updated December 21 2013

Gauging the strength of Florida's economic recovery can be a rather selective exercise.

It all depends on which numbers you want to look at.

Gov. Rick Scott likes to tout the baseline number for unemployment, such as the latest one which he released Friday. It shows Florida far outpacing much of the country with its jobless rate plummeting to 6.4 percent in November, down from 6.7 percent in October and down a whopping 1.6 percentage points over the year. Nationwide, only North Carolina and New Jersey had a greater percentage point drop in the their jobless rate over the year.

Long a laggard in recovery, Florida can now boast a much lower jobless rate than the national rate of 7 percent.

A few other numbers, however, indicate the state's recovery has been far more restrained. Florida added only 6,100 jobs last month, a big slowdown from October when it led the country with 44,000 newly created jobs.

And then consider two other numbers:

• 18,000 — That's the growth this past month in Florida's working-age population of 16-and-up residents who are not in jails or hospitals.

• 2,000 — That's how much the civilian labor force — those with a job or looking for one — shrank over the same time.

The disconnect continues a troubling trend. Over the past year, the state's working age population grew by 214,000 while the labor force shrank by 9,000.

Economists say the combination of a dwindling labor force and growing population indicates there are more people who have at least temporarily given up looking for work and are no longer counted in unemployment statistics.

Some of the labor force shrinkage is made up of aging Baby Boomers who are retiring, but many are likely discouraged workers, said Sean Snaith, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Economic Competitiveness. When they re-enter the labor pool at some point, that drives up competition and potentially the jobless rate.

"All is not as rosy as that headline unemployment number," Snaith said. "The smaller labor force is a big part of why that number has come down so quickly."

He noted that a broader measure of Florida unemployment — one that includes discouraged workers and part-timers who want full-time work but can't find it — only fell from 15.1 percent to 14.6 percent between the second quarter and third quarter of 2013.

Florida is not alone in seeing labor force participation drop. Nationally, an estimated 5.7 million people have been sidelined by the recession, classified as "missing workers" that are neither in a job nor actively seeking one, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

However, the situation may be more acute here given how Florida's population continues to surge.

Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg, called it "kind of odd" that more jobs haven't been created while the state's population has risen 1.4 percent over the past year.

"You're looking at a trend where the unemployment rate here is falling faster than the national average, but I think it's overstated because we're still seeing people drop out," he said.

That doesn't mean that the state's economy isn't improving, Brown said. It's still in much better shape than during the Great Recession, as tens of thousands of jobs have been added over a broader swath of industries. Trade, transportation and utilities — a broad category that includes most retail jobs — remained the top industry in gaining 56,800 jobs over the year. Professional and business services was second, up 38,700 jobs. Government is the only sector with fewer jobs than a year ago.

Moreover, Tampa Bay remains one of the brightest economic spots. The region continued to lead all Florida metros in adding 39,300 jobs year over year, including a solid 10,900 more jobs over last month alone.

The bay area's unemployment rate fell to 6.2 percent. Pinellas and Hillsborough counties boasted the lowest jobless rates in the region at 6 percent while Hernando remained at the other end of the spectrum at 7.7 percent.

Metro and county estimates are not seasonally adjusted like state figures, so they tend to fluctuate more month to month.

The governor singled out Tampa Bay's performance, even as he beamed over the latest statewide retraction in the jobless rate.

"We haven't experienced an unemployment rate this low in over five years," said Scott, who was in Winter Park on Friday morning to release the report. "Today's news is great, but we're not finished."

Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.