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Jobless rate falls to 4-year low

Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 06:57 PM

Florida's unemployment rate fell to its lowest level in four years in November, signaling that the Sunshine State's comeback is for real.

The state's unemployment rate fell to 8.1 percent last month from 8.5 percent in October, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity said. Meantime, the state created 24,500 jobs from October to November, second in the country behind North Carolina.

Government officials and economists alike were encouraged.

"More people are moving here, more businesses are expanding, our home prices are recovering and more people are pursuing the careers of their dreams," read a statement from Gov. Rick Scott, who campaigned on a pledge to create 700,000 jobs in seven years. "We have more work to do, but Florida is clearly on the right track for greater job creation."

In the past, some economists looked skeptically at positive news about the labor market. A huge number of people had dropped out of Florida's labor force, which was keeping the state's jobless rate artificially low.

However, this month's improvement appears more solid, said Sean Snaith, director of the Institute for Economic Competitiveness at the University of Central Florida.

"The significant decline in the unemployment rate last month was not exaggerated by a shrinking labor force but represents real progress in the labor market," he said Friday in a paper on the state's employment situation.

According to the state figures, an estimated 760,000 people were jobless last month out of a labor force of 9.3 million.

That is significantly better than a few years ago, when more than 1 million Floridians were out of work. Government officials also took heart that Florida created 83,300 jobs in the one-year period from November 2011 to last month. That growth ranked Florida fifth in the country in year-over-year job growth, although it's less impressive considering Florida is the nation's fourth most populous state.

Texas led the nation in job growth over the year by adding 278,800 jobs, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The overall U.S. unemployment rate was 7.7 percent in November. Locally, the jobless rate in the Tampa region was 8.1 percent in November, down from 8.2 percent in October. The region consists of Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.

Michael Blackman, chief corporate development officer for Tampa-based staffing giant Kforce, said college-educated people aren't facing the same challenges as those with less schooling. The national jobless rate for those with college degrees is just 3.8 percent, he said.

His company can't find enough people with certain programming skills.

"(Medical records) would be among the many subniches we're active in, whereas in a practical matter, there is little if any unemployment," Blackman said.

In Tampa, a growing homeowners insurance company called Homeowners Choice Property & Casualty Insurance added 55 people this year and expects to add at least 30 more next year.

The company started five years ago just as the economy was heading south, Chief Executive Officer Paresh Patel said. But it didn't hamper the company's success and it continues to grow.

"We're always looking for talent," he said.

Statewide, the industry gaining the most jobs over the year was leisure and hospitality, a broad category that includes restaurants, pubs and amusement parks. It added 31,200 jobs.

To be sure, some of the improvement in Florida's jobless rate is because of a quirk in how the government measures unemployment. People who stop looking for work and leave the state's labor force technically are not considered unemployed.

Amy Baker, coordinator of the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research, said 57 percent of the drop in Florida's unemployment rate can be chalked up to this lack of labor force participation. That's not unique to Florida, however, because the nation overall has seen a reduction in its labor force, Baker said.

It's possible Florida's unemployment rate could still rise, Baker said.

As the state's economy improves, some formerly discouraged Floridians could begin looking for work, rejoin the labor force and cause the jobless rate to creep up, she said. (813) 259-7865 Twitter: @msasso