Florida, Tampa Bay jobless report seen as 'mixed bag'
TAMPA - The Tampa Bay region's unemployment rate fell to 7.9 percent in December, the first time it has dipped below 8 percent since 2008. And the overall state jobless figure improved to 8 percent in December from 8.1 percent in November, a four-year low. Those were the highlights Friday in a jobs report by the state's Department of Economic Opportunity that otherwise drew mixed reviews. Gov. Rick Scott, for example, issued a statement hailing improvements in Florida housing and consumer confidence. The changes his administration is making are "helping Florida families pursue the American dream," his statement said.But Florida economists were less enthused. Scott Brown, of Raymond James Financial, and University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith both noted that Florida lost 15,300 jobs last month compared with November. They note that it's possible for the unemployment rate to improve even as Florida loses jobs because the two economic measures come from different surveys of households and businesses that don't always mesh. Brown called Friday's report a "mixed bag" that generally points toward an improving economy. The Tampa Bay region's jobless rate in December dropped 0.3 percent from November's rate of 8.2 percent. The last time it dipped under 8 percent was October 2008, when it was 7.5 percent. To put it in human terms, an estimated 104,245 people in the Tampa Bay region — encompassing Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties in the jobs report — were unemployed last month out of a labor force of about 1.3 million. Across the state, an estimated 749,000 Floridians were unemployed. Although the drop in the rate is worth celebrating, it is important to note that regional unemployment figures are considered less reliable than statewide figures because they're not adjusted for seasonal fluctuations in hiring. Critics often complain that bureaucrats underestimate the severity of the unemployment problem because the figures only count people who actively are seeking work. Still, the fact that Florida's jobless figure is falling is a good sign. Florida now is just barely behind the overall U.S. unemployment rate of 7.8 percent, after trailing the nation for several years. Leading the state's comeback are two industries that rely heavily on consumer discretionary spending, the leisure and hospitality industry and retail trade. Unfortunately, both are generally known for offering average or below-average wages. Employment in Florida's leisure and hospitality industry rose 3.1 percent in the past year, adding just shy of 30,000 jobs statewide. The number of retail trade jobs rose by 2.1 percent, adding 20,100 jobs. Locally, it can be hard to spot signs of improvement. Florida's manufacturers have barely hired anyone during the past year, according to state figures. Employment in manufacturing is up just a half-percent over the past year. Roy Sweatman, president of a Tampa manufacturing firm called Southern Manufacturing Technologies, said he has room for about 10 new manufacturing employees — if he can find people with the advanced skills he needs. Ed Peachey, who oversees the government-sponsored jobs agencies in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, said he hasn't seen a big increase in employers seeking workers lately. "It's pretty level actually, and it's been pretty level for a couple years," Peachey said.
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