Florida's job market is still sickly, but at least Tampa Bay is perking up. For the second month in a row, the region is adding jobs again.
The bottom-line numbers released Friday weren't encouraging: the state shed an estimated 17,900 jobs between November and December and its unemployment rate was unchanged at 12 percent.
In Tampa Bay, however, the unemployment rate dropped substantially, from 12.7 percent to 12 percent. Employers added 2,700 jobs over the month and are up 1,800 jobs compared with a year ago. Hernando, the hardest-hit county in the region, posted the biggest improvement with unemployment falling almost a full percentage point.
Unlike state figures, local estimates are not seasonally adjusted and often fluctuate more widely month to month, particularly during a month like December because of tourism, holiday shopping and agricultural hiring.
Nonetheless, the bay area's performance was a boost as the state struggles with 1.1 million people out of work and a jobless rate just shy of the 12.3 percent record set in March.
Rebecca Rust, chief economist with the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, which oversees unemployment issues, singled out the bay area's comeback in a conference call Friday afternoon.
"The Tampa-St. Petersburg area had been one of the areas losing the most jobs and had been hard-hit," Rust said. "The gains are very small … but Tampa is starting to show improvement."
In another positive note, Florida continued a six-month streak of adding jobs compared with a year ago. The number of jobs statewide is up 43,500, or just under 1 percent, compared with December 2009.
Since its peak employment heyday in March 2007, Florida has lost 876,500 jobs. By far, the hardest-hit sector has been construction, down by nearly 340,000 jobs, or 51 percent.
Construction led the way among job-losers again in December, down 8,500 jobs over the month and down 20,200 jobs since December 2009. Financial services and manufacturing are among other industries losing the most jobs.
The education and health services category remained No. 1 among job gainers, driven largely by hiring for ambulatory health services, which includes outpatient clinics, same-day surgery centers and doctors' offices.
Nationally, the unemployment rate fell to 9.4 percent in December, down from 9.8 percent. But economists say the drop was largely driven by fewer unemployed actually looking for work, and expect the rate to rise again when people resume their job hunt.
"It's still a good news/bad news situation," said Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg. "The good news is the economy is improving. The bad news is it's not improving fast enough to do something for the job market."
Jeff Harrington can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ jeffmharrington.