Florida unemployments falls to 9.4 percent

Published March 31, 2012

Tampa Bay has emerged as an MVP in Florida's ongoing battle to whittle down its still bloated unemployment rate.

• The bay area added 20,800 net new jobs over the past 12 months, tops among all metro areas. From January to February alone, the region is up 9,300 jobs.

• In February, the bay area's unemployment rate fell a dramatic six-tenths of a percentage point, from 10 percent to 9.4 percent.

• Unlike the state, Tampa Bay's labor pool is growing compared to both a month ago and a year ago. That means its improved jobs picture is not because more jobless have temporarily suspended their search and are no longer being counted.

Tally it up and Tampa Bay sticks out as key to the state's jobless rate tumbling from 9.6 percent to 9.4 percent in February, dipping to its lowest point in three years. It's a big reason Gov. Rick Scott on Friday could announce the state added 10,100 jobs in February — partially offsetting a dismal January when it lost 38,600 jobs.

Surprised that Tampa Bay's economic engine is churning? Local executive recruiter Phil Petrillo isn't.

"We've been here since 1980, and this first quarter was our best first quarter ever in the history of the business," said Petrillo, whose company, Management Recruiters of St. Petersburg, tries to match managers with jobs in the $80,000 to $200,000 pay range.

Demand for IT positions is "through the ceiling," he says. Ditto with heavy demand for mechanical, chemical and electrical engineers.

For many mid-level managers, "it's definitely a candidate-driven market," he said. "People are more willing to make a move now where they were really hesitant to jump the last couple of years. And companies are coming up with the sizable increases in salary to make sure that happens."

Tampa Bay's jobs recovery still faces severe headwinds, including a housing market decimated by foreclosures.

Moreover, a local unemployment rate above 9 percent is still abysmal by most standards, and economists predict the return of a more palatable jobless rate under 6 percent may still be years away.

Still, Tampa Bay's job creation momentum is hard to overlook.

New jobs are popping up not just in early-recovery niches like health care, tourism and retail, but also in professional business services and real estate. Call center hiring in particular is back in vogue, with companies such as lawn care specialist TruGreen and health insurer Humana adding hundreds of local jobs. Time Warner is adding 500 information technology and human resources jobs at a shared resource center in Hillsborough County, promising an average salary of more than $57,000.

Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg, said the bay area's ace in the hole is its diversity.

Jobs here aren't tethered only to tourism, for example, or a handful of big companies. Rather, small business drives the bay area, and small business is on the comeback trail thanks to a long-awaited easing of credit.

"In the heat of the crisis in the fall of 2009, banks were pulling lines of credit for small business left and right," Brown said. "It's taken a while, but that's starting to improve. The loans are getting a little easier to get."

So far, the economic recovery is stronger in the region's urban counties, with both Hillsborough and Pinellas County falling last month to 9 percent unemployment. Outlying counties aren't as fortunate, as they're still battling double-digit joblessness. Hardest hit is Hernando with a 12.1 percent unemployment rate, second-highest among all Florida counties.

It's not unusual, Brown said, for outlying counties to lag in recovery. The same pattern is playing out elsewhere in the country.

Tampa Bay's growing labor pool also contrasts with much of the state. The pool, which measures the number of people who have a job or are looking, is up by 6,300 workers in February to over 1.3 million.

In contrast, the state's labor pool continues to shrink, shriveling by another 4,000 workers in February even though the state's population grew by 17,000. Economists fear a dwindling labor pool indicates there are thousands more jobless Floridians who have temporarily given up their job search and, when they return, unemployment will rise again.

A shrinking labor pool helps explain why Florida has narrowed the gap with the national unemployment rate (flat at 8.3 percent the last two months) even though state's growth rate lags the country's growth rate.

In the last 12 months, Florida has added 72,300 jobs for a growth rate of about 1 percent, according to a Florida Department of Economic Opportunity analysis released Friday. The United States has added more than 2 million jobs during that span, notching a growth rate of 1.5 percent.

In other words, U.S. jobs are growing at a rate 50 percent higher than Florida, and February continued the trend.

Florida still has the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the country, better than Nevada (12.3 percent), Rhode Island (11 percent) and California (10.9 percent) and North Carolina (9.9 percent).

Jeff Harrington can be reached at or (727) 893-8242.