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A silent sector suffers

The way things are going in the Tampa Bay area, one worker out of 13 will lose his or her job next year. Auto sales are running on empty. Banks and savings and loans are covering losses with layoffs. The Cold War is the old war, so defense plants need fewer workers.

But more than anything, the people jamming unemployment lines come from a silent sector of the economy. They earn modest wages. They get laid off in twos and threes. Nothing to merit headlines.

They are the people who provide services _ the hotel maid, the struggling accountant, the security guard or data processor who find work through temporary employment agencies.

Service workers hold a third of all jobs in the area. But as the economy slides toward recession, they are filing more than half the unemployment claims.

These disproportionate numbers contain a sliver of good news as the Tampa Bay area

braces for harder times, economists say. The glut of service workers in unemployment lines means other sectors of the economy _ such as finance, real estate and construction _ may have bottomed out.

That means the Tampa Bay area's economy may prove slightly less sluggish during the next six to 12 months.

"A major difference as you look at (slowdowns in) '82 or the mid-70s, was that we collapsed construction markets all at once," said Carol Taylor West, director of forecasting at the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

This time around, the bay area's construction industry has been shrinking for five inglorious years _ taking building-supply companies, home furnishers and carpet sellers along for the slide. Thousands of workers lost jobs, but they did so in smaller doses.

"The economy has adjusted over longer periods .

.

. and can adapt a lot better," West said.

Banks and savings and loans have discharged many employees this year. More than 1,000 jobs have been cut in the Tampa Bay area, according to Florida Department of Labor estimates. That includes executives along with rank and file.

But the worst cuts in finance may be over.

In September 1989, 177 workers in finance, insurance and real estate filed for unemployment compensation. This September, 120 filed claims.

West expects employment to grow 1.4 percent in the bay area in 1991, probably insufficient to absorb residents moving in from other states. The jobless rate should rise slightly through the year, she said, then nudge down toward the end.

"The slowdown will be shallow and short-lived," West said. "I wouldn't use the word recession for Tampa Bay. The people in Tampa might, but that's only in comparison to the strong growth of several years ago."

Call it recession or call it slowdown, thousands will lose their jobs. Employment statistics provided by the state indicate where the ax is falling.

Services: plagued

by economic ills

Unemployment spreads like a winter flu. A Honeywell executive loses her job, so her family stops eating out. When others follow suit, waiters get laid off.

Particularly sensitive to economic lethargy is the service sector. More than a quarter-million people provide services in the Tampa Bay area, from barbers to barristers.

"We have many small firms in services, and they are very vulnerable to debt," West said. People who repair appliances, mow lawns, give massages and manicures. "In a slowdown we can lose many of them completely."

In larger companies, the backbone of services are the workers themselves _ not equipment, not materials. Companies looking to retrench often have no choice but to lay people off.

"Services are people-intensive. And this is where we've seen problems with wage-and-benefits inflation, particularly on the health-care side," said Michael Vitner, an economist for Barnett Bank.

The biggest providers of services are health-care workers _ more than 75,000 strong and growing by more than 5,000 per year. Want ads for nurses and certified aides dominate the Sunday classifieds. Illness, it seems, pays little attention to hard times.

The second largest service industry _ business services _ is ripe for a fall, the economists said. These companies provide a wide range of contract workers to other businesses _ data processors, cleaners, security guards, assemblers.

Business services jobs still are growing, but at half the rate they did last year.

New-home building

decreases each year

House-building peaked in 1985, when 35,000 homes sprang up in suburban neighborhoods such as Northdale in Hillsborough County and East Lake Tarpon in Pinellas. Each successive year saw fewer new houses: 33,000, 22,500, 19,700, 14,800. This year, the Tampa Bay area can expect to build 12,000, estimates Vitner.

Now _ at least in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties _ construction trades have been down so long they are starting to look like up.

The Florida Department of Labor figures that the metropolitan bay area employs 1,000 more construction workers than it did a year ago. In Hillsborough County, unemployment claims have fallen 14 percent.

To the north, and in other parts of the state, the story is different. Home-building remained strong in Hernando and Pasco until recently. So now those counties face a sharper drop-off.

Spring Hill-based Andres Home Corp., for example, built nearly 200 houses in 1989. This year, the company eliminated its middle-management staff and part of its sales staff, cutting overhead by 30 percent.

Unemployment claims by construction workers have risen 69 percent in Hernando County.

"Hernando and Pasco, especially Hernando, are more retirement-based markets," said Marvin Rose, a Tarpon Springs real estate consultant. "The northern feeder states are having problems. And the oil situation hurts; it adds uncertainty. Retirees are skittish buyers, so they're more likely to stay put up north."

Other recently booming parts of Florida also are poised for a hard fall. Construction workers in the Orlando area are filing 96 percent more unemployment claims than a year ago. Statewide, the construction industry lost 16,200 jobs this year, the biggest drop since the last recession.

The bay area's real estate market mirrors construction. Sales have been soft for several years, but may have bottomed out. This year, Pinellas County real estate agents sold 7 percent more single-family homes and 28 percent more condos than a year ago. State analysts estimate that 700 jobs have been added in real estate this year.

Unemployment claims

up 8 percent in trade

Retail trade employs one worker in five, from people who sell cars to bartenders. So far, unemployment claims in trade have risen only 8 percent, but economists say this sector is vulnerable to slowdown.

When Ames Department stores went under last summer, 2,000 people lost jobs.

The huge restaurant and liquor sector has added only 500 jobs this year.

That means for virtually every restaurant that opens, another closes, and new workers moving into the area can't be absorbed.

Already, manufacturing is registering a net job loss, centered in Pinellas County, where unemployment claims have risen 35 percent. Hernando's claims rose 125 percent last year, but its manufacturing base is so small, that is relatively insignificant.

No one needs to tell Wayne McCallum about recession.

He bought a small used-car dealership in Largo earlier this year _ a few months before people stopped buying cars. His sales have dropped from four a week to two.

This reflects classic consumer behavior in hard times. People put off buying big-ticket items such as cars and appliances. The state calculates that 500 jobs have been lost in auto sales in the last year.

Even price slashing doesn't always help. Consider a white, 16-foot, 1971 Ford motor home, 101,000 miles. McCallum said he paid $2,295 for it six months ago, priced it at $3,495 and came down to $2,495. "I can't understand why we haven't sold it," McCallum said. "It runs good."

_ Staff writer Robert Keefe contributed to this report.

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