Florida is getting its economic swagger back.
For the first time in more than five years, its unemployment rate tumbled below 7 percent — all the way to 6.7 percent as it added nearly 45,000 jobs in October, more than any other state.
Tampa Bay had even more to boast about. Its unemployment rate fell to 6.4 percent in October, down nearly a full percentage point from three months ago to reach its lowest rate since May 2008. The region added 7,100 jobs last month and is up almost 40,000 over the past year, more than any other Florida metro.
Sidetracked by the federal sequester, the state released two months worth of jobs figures at once Friday.
The delayed jumbo report showed that — after a stagnant summer — both September and October were winners. Florida's jobless rate fell from 7 percent to 6.8 percent in September, before dropping again in October.
By comparison, the national jobless rate stood at 7.3 percent.
"Over the last two months, the state has added more than 67,000 private sector jobs," said Gov. Rick Scott, who was in St. Mary's to trumpet the latest numbers from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. "This is great news for Florida families."
Florida's strong improvement, however, comes with caveats. The state still has a long way to go to reach employment levels consistent with a robust economy. And many of the newly created jobs pay lower wages than the jobs lost during the recession.
And then there are all those people who got discouraged and left the workforce. Anyone who gives up looking for work is not counted among the jobless. Some retired, but many of the others will eventually begin looking again.
A look at the past two years underscores the problem.
The unemployment rate fell from 9.4 percent in December 2011 to 6.7 percent today. But the percentage of Floridians in the labor pool — those with a job or looking for one — also shrank. That artificially helped drive the unemployment rate down. What if the labor pool participation rate had stayed the same as it was in December 2011? The unemployment rate would be 8.2 percent today, according to a Times analysis.
The Florida Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research office predicted earlier this month that, despite the improving picture, Florida's economy is still three years away from getting back to normal.
"You're still a long way away from the point where you would get people coming back into the labor force because the job market is so strong," said Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg.
Nevertheless, Brown said, Friday's snapshot is encouraging as it shows Florida clearly on a positive path. Not since December 2010 has Florida added more jobs in the private sector.
Unlike the initial months trying to pull out of the Great Recession, Florida's recovery is now broad-based, with nearly every major industry growing.
Trade, transportation and utilities — a broad category that includes most retail jobs — has grown the most, swelling by 56,300 jobs from a year ago.
Other top-performing industries included leisure and hospitality (up 39,500 jobs) and professional and business services (up 38,500 jobs).
Construction, the recession's biggest punching bag, continued its big rebound, up 26,600 jobs year-over-year and 10,500 jobs this past month alone. That's a bigger jump in construction jobs over both the year and the month than any other state, according to the trade industry group Associated General Contractors.
Education and health remained strong (up 15,100 jobs) along with financial activities (up 9,000 jobs). Even the manufacturing industry, a recovery laggard, is now up a net 400 jobs.
The sole year-over-year net loser in jobs is government, down 9,000 jobs. More than half of the government losses in October came in the federal government.
A stream of jobs announcement has buoyed Tampa Bay's economic standing. USAA, HealthPlan Services, Bristol Myers Squibb, Time Warner and Depository Trust & Clearing Corp. are among those moving operations here or expanding, adding thousands of jobs.
Mickey Miller, branch manager for staffing firm Adecco's Tampa office, said demand for workers has been rising for nearly two years, particularly in the financial sector.
"Nothing like the boom, but it's been a very steady increase for us," he said. "First, after the recession, everything was project-related stuff. . . . Now, we've seen more of our companies looking for temporary-to-permanent solutions."
Scott, who made adding jobs the pre-eminent issue of his gubernatorial campaign and first term in office, acknowledged more work to be done.
"We don't just want a state where job creation reaches a certain number, or unemployment falls to a certain number," he said. "We want to create an economic opportunity. We want a state with dynamic, growing industries that will create jobs and careers for generations to come."