Two steps forward, a bigger step back.
After a couple months of job growth, Tampa Bay's unemployment jumped to 12.4 percent in January as the region shed 13,000 jobs — more evidence that any job recovery will come in fits and starts.
The latest snapshot released Thursday shows about 161,000 people are seeking a job in the bay area, roughly equivalent to the population of Clearwater, Temple Terrace and Plant City combined. That doesn't include tens of thousands who are working part time because they are unable to find full-time work or those who are discouraged and have stopped looking.
Year over year, the bay area is up by 3,600 jobs, a modest 0.3 percent, but there are 4,600 more people competing in the labor force. A year ago, the area's unemployment rate was an identical 12.4 percent.
The numbers, which are not seasonally adjusted, are skewed in part by the loss of seasonal retail and agriculture jobs. Yet even the statewide report, which is seasonally adjusted, was only slightly more encouraging.
Florida's unemployment rate edged down slightly to 11.9 percent from a record 12 percent in December. But that was mainly because more people had stopped looking for work, said Scott Brown, chief economist with St. Petersburg-based Raymond James Financial.
From December to January, 4,000 people dropped out of the labor force and the state lost 12,900 jobs. (Florida is still up a net 8,400 jobs compared to a year ago.)
Add in discouraged workers and part-timers seeking full-time work and the state's jobless rate would be 20.1 percent.
Brown's conclusion: "It's not a pretty story."
Sean Snaith, an economist with the University of Central Florida, was more optimistic, saying continual gains in year-over-year job growth indicate the state is gradually getting better. He compared the state's economy to a jumbo jet on the runway that has been cleared for takeoff.
"We're seeing movement in the right direction," said Snaith, the director of UCF's Institute for Economic Competitiveness. "This is just the beginning, and our recovery will continue to build over the course of the year."
Among the notable job shifts: Leisure and hospitality took over as the top job creator, adding 32,600 jobs year over year. The longtime No. 1 category, education and health services (with the emphasis on health care jobs), added 13,000 jobs during the year.
Along the same vein, tourism hub Orlando led all metro areas in adding 20,400 jobs during the year. Next closest was Miami Beach with 6,000 jobs.
Despite being decimated throughout the recession, the construction industry continued to dominate the lost jobs category, down 24,000 jobs year over year. Since 2006, the state has shed 355,000 construction jobs, accounting for 52 percent of all job losses statewide.
Rebecca Rust, chief economist with the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, which oversees unemployment issues, offered numerous reasons why Florida is taking so long to recover: uncertainty among small businesses; declining home values and rising foreclosures; and a mismatch between available jobs and job seekers' skills.
Credit conditions have improved slightly, but turmoil in the Middle East and rising oil prices threaten to hamper Florida's recovery further, especially given the tourism industry's reliance on affordable travel.
In a forecast released last month, a group of state economists predicted that unemployment will remain high throughout the year, dropping only to 11.7 percent by year-end. Unemployment won't fall to a more normalized rate below 6 percent until 2018, the group predicted.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8242.