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JOBS VIEW NOT AS AWFUL

Times are still tough, but Florida's jobless rate dips and worker sentiment brightens.

The Florida worker, a bruised and battered specimen, still has a long climb ahead with double-digit unemployment expected to drag well into next year.

But Friday served up several signs of encouragement that the state's jobless plight might not get much worse:

- Unemployment ticked down a notch in Florida from 10.8 percent to 10.7 percent - and was down slightly in each bay area county. Florida was one of just 16 states to post a month-to-month decrease for August. In contrast, California, Nevada and Rhode Island each hit record unemployment rates, and five states are now topping 12 percent.

- A new Spherion survey showed an unexpected jump in the confidence of Florida workers. The number of workers reporting the economy getting stronger rose to 27 percent, up from 16 percent a month ago, and there was a sizable drop in those who believe there are fewer jobs available.

- In at least a psychological boost, the construction industry, which led the way into Florida's downturn, actually grew last month. The addition of 5,500 jobs was relatively small, but notable given the industry has shed about 200,000 jobs statewide during the downturn.

Cynthia Lorenzo, who runs the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation, the state's unemployment office, said she was encouraged by the "relative stability" of Florida's unemployment rate the past few months.

"We anticipate improvement in Florida's job market in the second quarter of next year and are already seeing glimmers of hope to that effect," she said.

The glimmers can't come soon enough in a state grappling with nearly 1 million jobless, 665,000 of them receiving unemployment insurance benefits. Florida's unemployment rate is still hovering near a 34-year high as it shed another 21,500 jobs from July to August. Those out of work the longest continue to struggle mightily to re-enter the work force.

Economists cautioned against drawing many conclusions from a single month's data. Yet any signs of moderation are welcome after a two-year surge in which Florida's unemployment rate has more than doubled from 4.2 percent to its 10.8 percent peak in July.

"Certainly on a national level you're seeing job loss slowing down a bit, and it's nowhere near as bad (in Florida) as it was at the beginning of the year," said Scott Brown, an economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke this week stimulated markets by saying the longest recession since World War II is likely over. Encouraged by growth in industrial production and improved home sales, many economists predict the economy should grow by a healthy 3 to 4 percent in the third quarter.

Rebecca Rust, AWI's chief economist, cited some positive Florida statistics as well. Housing sales and housing prices both rose in August as did consumer confidence.

Indeed, the Florida Employee Confidence Index compiled by staffing company Spherion not only jumped significantly this month but reached a 12-month high.

Paula Franco, branch manager for Spherion Staffing Services in Florida, said growing worker confidence should spur employers to "not lose sight" of efforts to retain employees as the recession loosens its grip.

"Although we are most definitely in an employers' market, it is important to not forget how easily this pendulum can shift," Franco said.

Not that many economists are talking about anything but a sluggish recovery. One of Rust's biggest concerns is that the state's worsening foreclosure picture could hinder its comeback.

About 62,400 Florida homes were in some stage of foreclosure in August, up 10 percent from July and 42 percent from a year ago. That made Florida the second-worst state for foreclosures, trailing only Nevada, with 1 in every 140 homes affected.

"Generally when you're at the trough of a recession, you tend to get mixed signals," Rust said.

Throughout the recession, Florida has been losing jobs at a faster pace than the rest of the country, with the national unemployment rate at 9.7 percent for August.

In July, the Florida Economic Estimating Conference predicted the state's unemployment would peak at 11 percent in the second quarter of 2010 and then gradually decline. The conference meets again next month to update its forecast.

The unemployment rate is based on a household survey of those who have actively looked for work in the past four weeks. It includes those who are not receiving unemployment benefits if they are still in the job hunt. It does not include discouraged workers who are no longer actively looking. The state's labor force of 9.19 million has shrunk over the past year, reflecting both those no longer seeking work and those who have moved out of state.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8242.

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A look at the numbers

County August 2009 July 2009 August 2008
Hernando 13.3 percent 13.4 percent 9.2 percent
Hillsborough 11.1 percent 11.2 percent 6.9 percent
Pasco 12.1 percent 12.3 percent 8.1 percent
Pinellas 10.9 percent 11.1 percent 6.9 percent
Hendry (highest) 16.4 percent 16.7 percent 14.5 percent
Liberty (lowest) 5.6 percent 5.9 percent 5.1 percent
Tampa Bay area 11.3 percent 11.4 percent 7.2 percent
Florida 10.7 percent 10.8 percent 6.5 percent
Nation 9.7 percent 9.4 percent 6.2 percent
Note: County and Tampa Bay area numbers are not seasonally adjusted; Florida and U.S. numbers are seasonally adjusted. Sources: Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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