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HOW DO YOU CHOOSE TO VIEW JOBS NUMBERS?

Our state labor gurus, working at the fancifully named Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, unveiled June employment numbers Friday with a gung-ho spirit and this benign headline:

Florida's June Unemployment Rate Up Slightly at 3.5 Percent

Not exactly poetry, but it came with some happy talking points.

Cue the music: Don't Worry, Be Happy.

First, Florida's June unemployment rate of 3.5 percent is far lower than the country's 4.5 percent and has remained so since mid 2002.

Second, Florida has recorded 58 consecutive months of job growth.

Third, Florida added 117,200 jobs since June 2006.

Akin to the offer made by the character Morpheus in the movie The Matrix, you may now choose to take the blue pill or the red pill. Take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake in your bed and you believe Florida's job market is still rosy.

Take the red pill, and you'll see in Friday's state labor numbers that Florida's job market shows distinct signs of fatigue.

First, the rate of job growth in Florida is the slowest recorded since December 2003 and reflects a deceleration since the start of this year.

Second, Florida in June boasted the same number of employed - 8,864,000 workers - as it did in May. No change (seasonally adjusted). But in counting the unemployed, Florida registered 13,000 more people without jobs than was reported in May. Hence the increase in the state unemployment rate to 3.5 percent in June from 3.4 percent in May.

Third, unemployment rates (the state now cites numbers not seasonally adjusted) at the county level in the Tampa Bay area are rising far faster.

- Pinellas County saw its unemployment rate rise in June to 3.6 percent from 3 percent in May and 3.4 percent in June 2006.

- Hillsborough unemployment jumped to 3.7 percent in June from 3.1 percent in May and 3.4 percent a year ago.

- Pasco? Up to 4.5 percent in June from 3.9 percent in May and a year ago.

- And Hernando broke the 5-percent barrier, registering 5.4 percent unemployed in June (fifth-worst among Florida's 67 counties, by the way), compared with 4.6 percent in May and 4.5 percent a year ago.

As a metro area, the Tampa Bay unemployment rate in June stood at 3.9 percent, up from 3.2 percent in May and 3.5 percent in June of '06.

Three cheers if you've made it this far through NumberWorld. But there is a point.

Florida's job market, seemingly bulletproof for eons, is nearing a tipping point. It is likely to stop growing and to start treading water soon.

The struggling housing market is driving the slowdown. As St. Petersburg Times business writer James Thorner reported Sunday on the state of our economy, businesses dependent upon the housing engine - like the area Ethan Allen furniture stores run by Jeff Bloom - are putting much of their anticipated expansion plans on hold.

Said Bloom: "This is as rough as we've seen it in many, many years."

Like most veterans of business, he does not need a red or blue pill to see how things really are.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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