This Labor Day weekend is one to celebrate what appears to be promising economic news, to take stock of how fragile the economic recovery remains, and reflect on ways to build a durable and diverse economy.
Unemployment in the state sits at 7.1 percent, slightly below the 7.4 percent national average. That’s a far cry from the state’s 11.4 percent unemployment rate from December 2009 through March 2011, the worst period for Florida’s jobless crisis.
The Tampa Bay market’s unemployment rate, which typically exceeds the state’s, has remained at 7.3 percent throughout the summer. On the bright side, state economists say nearly 42,000 jobs were added to the market so far this year. On top of that, hundreds of good-paying jobs are possibly headed for Hillsborough County.
In July, it was learned pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb plans to open a center serving its marketing, technology and business services. As many as 600 jobs paying an average of $65,000 are expected. Also that month, it was learned online retailer Amazon might build a warehouse in Ruskin that could lead to 1,000 jobs averaging $50,000 a year in pay.
National retailers such as Bass Pro Shops, Gander Mountain and Trader Joe’s are setting up shop here, and record tourist numbers are boosting hospitality jobs. The housing market is stirring to life, bringing construction jobs.
But it would be premature to say the tough economic times are at an end. A report by the state Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research makes that clear.
As usual, Florida’s average annual wage in 2012 was below the national average. What is alarming is that the annual wage showed further declines last year, dropping to 87.7 percent of the national average, down from 89 percent two years ago.
It’s no surprise then that personal income levels in the state dropped 1.5 percent in the first quarter of 2013, compared with the last quarter of 2012. Losses in net earnings and property income accounted for the drop.
Although the unemployment rate remains below the national average, the reason has a lot to do with what is known as a declining participation rate. That is, a significant number of people are no longer counted as unemployed because they quit looking for work or have delayed seeking employment. If those people were counted, the unemployment rate would be 8.2 percent in Florida.
The report goes on to say that the state has about 500,000 fewer jobs today than during the boom years just before the housing bust. So while there is a recovery under way, the slow pace is leaving too many people on the sidelines. Creating enough jobs is proving to be a challenge, one that won’t be met if Florida continues to depend so heavily on the homebuilding industry and the hospitality industry.
The diversity in jobs that Hillsborough appears poised to land offers the most promise for Tampa and the state. Amazon — which has expressed interest but has yet to commit to building in Hillsborough — and Bristol-Myers Squibb are Fortune 500 companies offering skilled jobs that can turn into careers.
The University of South Florida is doing its part by focusing on biotech and other high skilled jobs, helping to build a new workforce and attract innovative companies.
As the numbers show, it’s not easy to move a state beyond its traditional economic base. It takes an educated workforce and cities with the amenities and infrastructure to attract the best and the brightest.
Labor Day honors the contributions workers make to our society.
The best way the state can honor our workers is to build a diverse economy buffered from the boom and bust cycles of the construction industry.