Florida's summertime slump intensified in August, with the unemployment rate stuck at 8.8 percent and thousands more leaving the labor force.
It was the third month in a row that the state's jobless rate has either risen or stayed unchanged after steadily falling to a post-recession low of 8.6 percent in May.
"The numbers are a bit squirrelly month to month, but they tell a consistent story that we're more or less treading water here. And it's the same at the national level," said Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg.
Brown isn't forecasting the slow recovery will slip into a double-dip recession. "But there is this theory of stall speed," he said. "If you start growing less than 2 percent, there is a tendency to weaken even further. You tend to lose altitude."
In one upbeat development: the state added 23,200 jobs over the month and is up 77,800 jobs compared to a year ago, according to figures released Friday by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. A loss of more than 5,000 government jobs last month was more than countered by a growth of 28,000 jobs in the private sector.
"The month of August showed that 28,000 more Floridians found employment in the private sector and are able to provide for their families," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement. "This increase in new jobs is proving that the decisions we're making here in Florida are pointing our state in the right direction."
How you view the state of the jobs market, however, depends on which set of numbers you focus on.
Gov. Scott focuses on a survey of employers that shows job creation continuing, albeit barely at a pace to keep up with rising population.
But a separate survey of households, the study that's used to calculate unemployment, is less rosy.
It shows the number of unemployed Floridians was unchanged at 818,000, while another 10,000 people dropped out of the labor force between July and August. A recent analysis by the Florida Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research estimated that 91 percent of the drop in the state's unemployment rate so far this year has been due to a shrinking labor pool, not job creation.
Over the past 12 months, Florida's working age population (those 16-and-up not in jail, the military, or nursing homes) has risen by 216,000. Over the same time, the labor pool — those who either have a job or are looking for one — is only up 9,000.
Some who left the workforce are retirees or disabled. The burning question in economic circles is how many of those dropouts are discouraged workers who just temporarily stopped looking for a job so they're no longer counted.
In one sign of prolonged agony for many job seekers, the "average" time that it takes an unemployed Floridian to find a new job has swelled to 49.9 weeks.
"These people are losing their job skills," said Brown, the Raymond James economist. "Plus you have new entrants in the workforce who are not getting a job and not getting the skills they would normally get. That's going to carry with them for a decade or two."
Doug Arms, senior vice president in Tampa for Ajilon Professional Staffing, said Florida's fluctuating labor pool may be a reflection of the workers here as much as job opportunities.
"Florida is an interesting place with the employment appetite of the worker," he said. "They're very fickle with the seasons. People retract voluntarily (from the market) very frequently. … They elect to take the summer off; they elect to go back to school."
In terms of job opportunity, Arms said, the market "is trending in the right direction. We're making really good progress. … We were in a bad place last year."
Many lean employers have pushed productivity as far as they can go and have to grow to keep up with demand, Arms said. The mainstay job creators in health care, education and tourism remain strong, he noted, along with a lot more jobs in financial and professional services.
That meshes with the state's August report, which said the fastest-growing industry year-over-year is professional and business services (up 42,700 jobs), followed by private education and health (up 18,500 jobs). The biggest job losers are government (down 10,300 jobs) and construction (down 8,500 jobs).
Orlando took over as the biggest job creator among metro areas (up 26,400 jobs year-over-year), knocking the Tampa Bay area into second place with 17,000 net new jobs.
Unemployment in the bay area fell from 9.4 percent to 9 percent in August, matching the level it was at two months ago. Among area counties, Pinellas pulled in the lowest jobless rate at 8.6 percent while Hernando persisted as highest at 10.8 percent.
Unlike state figures, local and regional numbers tend to fluctuate more month to month because they are not seasonally adjusted for swings in industries like agriculture and tourism.
Florida continues to lag behind the national unemployment rate, currently 8.1 percent.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or [email protected]