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  1. Business

Florida's unemployment rate tumbles to 5 percent, with Tampa Bay leading metro areas in job creation

Tampa Bay's economy just got a few more reasons to celebrate this holiday season.

The area's unemployment rate fell to a more than eight-year low of 4.6 percent in November as it re-emerged as the biggest job-creating metro in the state, adding 40,500 jobs year over year.

The monthly report released Friday by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity was similarly upbeat statewide with the jobless rate falling to 5 percent, its lowest point since 2008. That marks the first time since January the state rate has dropped as low as the national jobless rate.

The fall, down from 5.2 percent in October, came as Florida added a robust 35,200 jobs over the month. The state posted similar gains in October, cementing a strong finish to a year that started out slow.

"Those are pretty sizable gains in back-to-back months," said Sean Snaith, a University of Central Florida economist. "In that regard, it was a strong report overall."

For Florida, it translated into the biggest job growth in the nation in November after months of hovering near the top. Florida seized that distinction in part because of a slowdown in California, said Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo.

But economists say the overall unemployment rate masks weakness in the job market.

The so-called underemployment rate — which includes people who want more work or who have given up on finding work — has been stubbornly high. In Florida, underemployment has averaged 11.9 percent over the past year, according to federal data released in October.

Moreover, despite a rise in jobs, wages have been slow to increase in tandem. Tampa Bay area counties, in particular, have been among the best in the nation for job growth, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but they lag in salary growth.

"That's been sort of the missing ingredient in this labor market recovery," Snaith said. "This cycle, the unemployment rate's not giving us the complete picture of the health of the labor market, and I think there still is significant slack out there."

That concern was reflected in November's employment figures.

The fastest-growing sector of Florida's economy was professional and business services, which has added 48,000 jobs in the last year. But it was followed closely by three industries that skew toward lower-paying jobs: education and health services; trade, transportation and utilities, which include retail jobs; and leisure and hospitality. Those three industries combined account for 134,800 jobs.

Gov. Rick Scott touted the employment numbers Friday, saying Florida had added a million jobs since December 2010. He launched a statewide tour dubbed "Million Miles for a Million Jobs" to draw attention to his administration's efforts and pitch more tax cuts and funding for economic development.

But the administration has also acknowledged that measuring job growth in sheer numbers may not be enough.

Jesse Panuccio, the outgoing director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, said Friday the state has shifted away from focusing on the sheer quantity of jobs it attracts to the quality they represent.

"If you've been listening to the governor in recent months, he's really starting to talk about economic diversity," Panuccio said, adding that quality is more important "now that we've recovered from the recession."

A key focus is manufacturing, underscored by Scott's push to lawmakers to eliminate the sales tax that manufacturers pay when purchasing equipment in Florida.

Speaking in Tampa on Thursday, Scott kept on that theme, saying the state hoped to bring more regional offices and jobs in technology and manufacturing to diversify Florida's economy.

Contact Thad Moore at tmoore@tampabay.com. Follow @thadmoore.

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