TAMPA Florida once again can boast of having an unemployment rate that is lower than the national average.
Florida’s jobless rate fell to 7.8 percent in January, a slight drop from its December rate of 7.9 percent. But it was enough to move Florida ahead of the national unemployment rate of 7.9 percent in January, the first time that’s happened since January 2008.
There are caveats to the good news. For one thing, the states that suffered the most during the recession are rebounding the fastest. So some of Florida’s improvement is simply a matter of how far it fell. For example, Nevada’s battered economy saw the most improvement in the unemployment rate during the past year.
Plus, economists chalk up some of Florida’s improvement to a quirk: so many people dropped out of the state’s labor force that the jobless rate is artificially low.
Still, the news gives some bragging rights to Gov. Rick Scott, who campaigned on a pledge to create jobs.
“Other states chose to raise taxes. Other states chose to increase debt,” Scott said in a prepared statement. “In Florida, we chose the course of economic growth and greater job creation by cutting taxes and paying down debt for the first time in decades by $2 billion.”
According to figures released Monday by the state Department of Economic Opportunity, Florida added 15,400 nonagricultural jobs in January compared with December. During the full year, the state added 127,500 jobs. That level of job creation puts Florida third in the nation, behind Texas (up 310,900 jobs) and California (up 254,900 jobs).
The Tampa Bay area’s unemployment rate actually rose slightly in January, creeping up to 8 percent from 7.9 percent in December. However, unemployment estimates for metropolitan areas tend to vary from one month to the next more than statewide figures.
Almost all industries in Florida added jobs during the past year, including the hard-hit construction sector, which added 7,400 jobs between January of last year and this past January. Restaurants and car dealerships also added jobs.
Jennifer Doerfel, executive vice president of the Tampa Bay Builders Association, said carpenters, electricians, plumbers and other skilled tradesmen are in short supply because of the sharp pickup in homebuilding.
“It’s going to be an ongoing problem for the next several years,” Doerfel said.
Florida historically enjoyed a better jobless rate than the nation overall, hitting a remarkable 3.3 percent during the boom year of 2006. However, that halted during the recession as Florida’s population stagnated and it shed hundreds of thousands of jobs in the housing business.
Now growing again, Florida economists have warned that some of the Sunshine State’s improvement has been misleading. At issue is the vast number of Floridians who have dropped out of the state’s labor force.
Starting a little more than a year ago, economist Amy Baker of the Office of Economic and Demographic Research noticed that Florida’s “labor force participation rate” — or the percentage of adults actually working or looking for work — had sunk surprisingly fast.
So, thousands of people who had dropped out of the labor force were no longer counted as unemployed, which skewed the unemployment rate.
At one point last year, politicians boasted that Florida’s unemployment rate had fallen from 9.9 percent to 8.6 percent in a span of about six months. However, Baker attributed almost 70 percent of that to these labor-force dropouts, not to an abundance of new jobs.
The good news lately is the labor force participation rate has leveled off and it appears job gains are helping to bring down the unemployment rate. As of December, just less than half the improvement in the unemployment rate could be tied to labor-force dropouts.
“Pretty much ever since then (last summer) it has been coming down,” Baker said.