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Our heavy reliance on the service and retail sectors makes us vulnerable in tough times.

If you want a lot of people to keep their jobs around here, you better keep shopping, eating out and talking to call centers.

The jobs that employ the most people in the Tampa Bay metro area consist mostly of selling stuff in stores, running cash registers, waiting tables, preparing food, stocking shelves, lifting and moving stuff, filling orders and handling administrative duties. Combined, the top 10 jobs in our metro area make up a quarter or more of the 1.27-million jobs in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties.

Look at the top 10 list below. No engineers or mechanics or brain surgeons or professors or computer scientists here. Now look at the average hourly wages. Of the top 10 most numerous jobs, only one - registered nurses earning an average of $29.39 an hour - exceeds the metro area's overall average hourly wage of $18.61. Some top 10 jobs, from food prep workers to waiters and waitresses to cashiers, make less than half the average wage.

One category that's missing from the top 10 is a mostly government-paid job: teacher. Occupational statistics break "teacher" down into more than a dozen different categories and separately report the number of each type of job. Adding all those jobs up (and we're only counting high school down to pre-k teachers) gives us 40,060 jobs across the four counties - and more than 46,000 if we include "teacher assistants." That would rank teacher as No. 1 or No. 2 on our top 10 list of jobs. As for average pay, the numbers vary widely, but an hourly wage of between $18 and $20 seems in the right ballpark - close or just above the area average.

The top 10 list offers a wealth of insight into our area, whose unemployment rate has now reached 7 percent. First, the lower-wage service jobs that dominate our economy are most vulnerable to cuts when consumers stop spending so much in stores and restaurants.

Second, the small successes of economic development leaders recruiting higher-paying jobs often get lost in our sheer volume of low-wage labor. It's tough to raise the overall average wage. Third, much of our less-skilled work caters to tourism. It's one of our long-dominating industries, but not one with much upside on the wage scale.

Finally, our public education system - for all its commitment and fine effort - still fails to graduate enough of its young people with high school degrees, perpetuating a workforce with weak job skills. And too many of those who do graduate are ill-prepared to become competitive workers in the market for 21st century jobs.

It's commendable that Gov. Charlie Crist and state Agency for Workforce Innovation director Monesia Brown say they are committed to developing "world class talent" in Florida. If only the rest of the world would wait for us to catch up.

Between August and September - one month's time -the slumping Tampa Bay economy lost an astonishing 6,600 jobs, according to state data released last week. That's 45 percent of all jobs lost statewide in that period. In the past year, the Tampa Bay area has lost 22,700, or 19 percent of the 119,700 jobs lost across the state.

We've got our work cut out for us to stem this ugly trend.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at

Fast facts Tampa Bay areaês top 10 jobs

Occupation 2007 number Average pay/hour
1. Retail salespersons 43,130 $13.14
2. Customer service reps 36,370 $14.69
3. Cashiers 33,050 $8.65
4. Waiters and waitresses 30,990 $9.83
5. General office clerks 29,860 $12.19
6. Food prep, serving workers 27,040 $8.21
7. Laborers, freight/stock movers 23,770 $11.21
8. Stock clerks, order fillers 22,880 $10.23
9. Registered nurses 22,030 $29.39
10. Secretaries (not legal/ medical/exec) 21,320 $13.19
Total metro area jobs 1.27-million $18.61
Source: Occupational Employment Statistics, Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation. Includes Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties.