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Florida's unemployment rate falls to 4.9 percent, but job gains are mild

February was a Jekyll-and-Hyde month for Florida's economy.

The good Dr. Jekyll: The unemployment rate tumbled two notches to an eight-year low of 4.9 percent. The last time Florida's unemployment rate was under 5 percent, George W. Bush was still in the White House, The Bucket List was coming out in theaters and Tim Tebow was enjoying his Heisman Trophy win.

And Mr. Hyde: After months of strong growth, the state added a meager 5,900 jobs — just a fraction of its population growth in February — with many key industries retracting. The biggest drop, of 4,900 jobs, came in professional and business services, which had been a cornerstone of gradually improving wages.

Another higher-paying industry, construction, slumped by 1,800 jobs over the month while leisure and hospitality lost 400 jobs. It was a rare slippage from the industry's rebound; construction has still added 25,800 jobs since February, 2015, second only to California.

Florida's biggest monthly growth came in financial activities (up 3,700 jobs); trade, transportation and utilities (up 3,400 jobs) and education and health services (up 3,000 jobs).

It's not unusual to see a disconnect between the unemployment rate and job creation numbers.

Government number crunchers use two different surveys to come up with the monthly reports: the unemployment rate comes from a household survey while industry breakdown of jobs added and lost comes from employers.

Of the two, economists stress job numbers over unemployment rates. In that category, Florida's monthly job gain is slim, indeed, compared to other large states like California and New York, which added nearly 40,000 jobs and 25,000 jobs, respectively.

But University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith is not overly concerned.

"If this becomes the new standard, then, yes, it's going to be a problem," he said. But "the previous four months (of job growth) had been really strong. I think we still have momentum in the labor market."

After all, Florida is up by 243,200 jobs from a year ago, when its jobless rate stood at 5.6 percent, and all industries except for information are growing year-over-year.

The overarching concerns of the prolonged recovery have not vanished: Wages are improving somewhat but still relatively depressed as there are more people vying for jobs than the headline numbers might suggest.

"The unemployment rate isn't really the clearest indicator of the health of the labor market," Snaith said. "There's still a lot of underemployment and people out of the labor force who would historically be in it."

Gov. Rick Scott, in releasing the figures, focused on the long-term picture and took the ebb and flow of government jobs out of his calculations.

Aggressive tax-cutting, Scott said, "has resulted in our private sector adding more than one million jobs in only five years. While these are incredible accomplishments for our state, we will continue to do all we can to support economic growth so Florida can be first in the nation for jobs."

In Tampa Bay, it was a stellar jobs month. The bay area added 9,700 jobs in February alone and is up nearly 40,000 jobs over the year, with professional and business services leading the way.

Tampa Bay's unemployment rate fell significantly to 4.5 percent, down from 4.9 percent a month ago and 5.4 percent a year ago.

Contact Jeff Harrington at [email protected] Follow @JeffMHarrington.

Florida's unemployment rate falls to 4.9 percent, but job gains are mild 03/25/16 [Last modified: Friday, March 25, 2016 9:53pm]
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