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Employment comeback proves to be a seesaw

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 10:48 AM
TAMPA -

Laid off from two managerial jobs in four years, Gene Bliss broke from corporate America a year ago and bought into a growing retail franchise.

The former operations and IT manager for Delta Airlines and steel maker Gerdau Ameri-steel envisions a small "empire" of CPR (Cell Phone Repair) shops across the Tampa Bay area. He will own some and sell others to franchisees.

"Technology is something we're not going to be able to do without," he said.

The retail business has roared back to life in Florida, recovering faster than almost any other industry and providing jobs to Bliss and thousands of others. But the trend also points to a problem with Florida's post-recession economy: Three years into the recovery, Florida has become more dependent on the lowest-paying jobs.

Nearly half of all the jobs created in Florida after the recession ended in 2009 are in retail and leisure/hospitality, two industries associated with low pay. By comparison, those same industries were responsible for less than a quarter of jobs created in the years after two previous recessions, in 1991 and 2001.

How quickly the state's higher-paying industries recover will have huge implications for its economy and for the re-election chances of Gov. Rick Scott.

David Denslow, an economist at the University of Florida, doesn't expect most of the state's industries, aside from construction, to regain the jobs lost between 2006 and 2009. He worries that Florida's economic recovery has run its course.

"I hope I'm wrong," he said.

Most experts believe Florida's economy, and the nation's, are getting stronger. And barring an economic collapse in Europe, they believe the United States won't fall into another recession.

Monthly unemployment numbers seem to back that up.

In December, for example, Florida's unemployment rate fell to 8 percent, its lowest level in four years. Scott has seized on the positive news.

"Housing starts are on the rise, businesses and families continue to move to Florida and more jobs are being created," Scott said in response to the December report. "The changes we are making to improve our state's business climate are helping Florida families pursue the American dream."

But the types of jobs being created are less impressive.

The Tribune compared the jobs lost in Florida between 2006 and 2009 with the jobs added during the recovery from 2009 to 2012. Among the findings:

Retailers have added 71,200 jobs in Florida since 2009, recapturing 75 percent of the industry's jobs lost during the recession. The leisure and hospitality industry has added 73,400 jobs in the past three years and now employs more people than it did before the recession.

Well-to-do Brazilians and other foreigners are pouring into Florida theme parks and hotels, helping prop up the tourism business, University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith said. Additionally, Floridians may simply be buying more from retailers because of "pent-up demand" among those who kept their jobs during the recession, Snaith said.

Workers who earn in the $30,000 to $50,000 range, including construction workers, back-office bank workers and local government employees, haven't rebounded so nicely. For example, the finance and insurance industry lost 50,400 jobs from 2006 to 2009 and has added back only 3,300 jobs since then, state data show. Tampa is a major hub of back-office finance jobs for the likes of JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup.

Construction experienced more job losses than any other industry in the state, shedding 350,000 jobs during the recession — more than 1 in every 2 jobs it once had. Homebuilders are starting to hire again, but so many construction workers have fled the state or the industry that not enough qualified labor can be found to fill the openings.

This recession was different from other recessions, Snaith said, because the housing and financial sectors collapsed. People stopped moving to Florida, builders stopped building houses and the economy stalled.

Florida isn't the only state struggling with a decline in middle-class jobs, though. Nationally, midwage jobs accounted for 60 percent of job losses during the recession, but only 20 percent of jobs added back during the recovery, estimates the National Employment Law Project, a New York-based advocacy group with some labor union members on its board.

The health care and social assistance industry is one sector with midlevel wages that has bucked the trend. It added 46,800 jobs between 2006 and 2009 and added another 54,500 jobs since 2009.

Jobs in this sector range from physicians to nurses' aides, but the median pay, at $35,000 a year, is fairly middle-of-the-road for Florida.

Scott, who won election by promising to create jobs, has a lot riding on the state's economy. So far, Florida's recovery has been weak at best: It has added 238,000 jobs since 2009, less than half the number of jobs added in the three years after the recessions ending in 1991 and 2001.

And economists note that some of the improvement in the unemployment rate is an illusion. At least 44 percent of the rate's drop is tied to a reduction in the size of Florida's labor force: People who drop out of the labor force are not counted as unemployed.

Bliss, the franchise owner, wasn't forced into retailing. Other companies came calling after he lost his previous job with a steel company in 2011. But at 57, he wanted to control his destiny.

He is betting his future on people's love of gadgets. CPR fixes cellphones, laptops and game consoles, and sells refurbished tech gear. He expects to hire three to six people for each CPR store he opens.

But like most retail jobs in Florida, they don't command high pay. Bliss expects to pay $10 to $15 an hour.


msasso@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7865 Twitter: @msasso

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