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Florida pulls away from nation on job growth

By ROBERT TRIGAUX
Published April 11, 2005


The United States just tapped its brakes on job growth. Florida just hit the accelerator.

The latest numbers on growth in the U.S. labor market show a sharp and unsettling slowdown in March. Nationwide, payrolls rose a mere 110,000, half what was expected, and far below February's revised 243,000 increase in jobs.

Florida's job market, by comparison, is gathering steam. Jobs grew 3.83 percent in the last quarter of 2004. That was more than twice the 1.64-percent rate of U.S. job growth in that same period.

Florida's 3.83 percent uptick is the largest reported in the state since the third quarter of 2000, before the bulk of the last recession and a year before the 9/11 attacks.

Florida's job generation is no temporary blip. Since at least 1998, the state's job growth has consistently trounced the nation's. Even in the depth of the most recent recession, when Florida jobs shrunk between late 2001 and the fall of 2002, U.S. jobs declined even more in that period. And they continued to shrink nationally for 15 more months before starting to grow again early last year.

"Robust population growth" - 2.2 percent last year - "has helped support Florida's strong economic performance," says a recent analysis of the state by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. "One area, however, where the state continues to lag is its comparatively slow pace of income growth."

Day to day, the strength of the area job market can be deceiving. Delta Airlines last month said it will eliminate 327 jobs at its Tampa hangar in an effort to reduce maintenance costs. The soon-to-be-replaced Clearwater Beach Hotel recently said it will lay off 120 hotel and food-service workers this spring. On a larger scale, JP Morgan Chase said it will shutter its credit card center in Tampa and eliminate 1,900 area jobs.

Statewide since Jan. 1, companies planning larger job cuts have announced more than 6,600 layoffs. More than a third of those are happening in the Tampa Bay area.

Yet the bigger picture in this metro area and throughout Florida is brighter and suggests most businesses are planning to hire.

A late February quarterly survey by TEC International of nearly 2,100 mid- and small-business executives nationwide found that businesses expect the U.S. economy to slow from 2004 but expand. But the majority of the 133 Florida executives in that same survey were more confident. While 63 percent of CEOs nationwide planned to add jobs this year, 73 percent of Florida executives said they would do so.

Many small businesses in Florida are humming. A March survey of payrolls in 21 states by SurePayroll Inc. of Chicago found that businesses in Florida are adding jobs faster than in any of 20 other states. The number of employees at Florida's small businesses has grown an impressive 6 percent this year with an average salary of $33,269.

"The average small business size in Florida is now back to where it was in February 2004. That's good cause for optimism and it bucks the national trend," says SurePayroll president Michael Alter outside Chicago in Skokie, Ill.

"Growth in hiring is exceptional compared to the country," he adds. "It's also good news for larger companies. When small businesses do well, big businesses also usually do well."

The Tampa Bay metropolitan area in February enjoyed the same low unemployment rate as the state: 4.5 percent, according to the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation. The national rate is 5.2 percent.

Hillsborough County not only boasted the region's biggest work force of 572,066. It also demonstrated the greatest regional job momentum this past year, followed by Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. Here are the highlights:

* In Hillsborough, the unemployment rate dropped to an impressively low 4.1 percent in February from 4.4 percent a year ago. In those 12 months, the county added more than 13,000 jobs while its labor force grew by nearly 12,000, suggesting Tampa and the surrounding county continue to be a key magnet for new people and new jobs.

* In Pinellas, unemployment remained at 4.5 percent, the same as in February of last year. The county actually employed nearly 11,000 more people in the past year, while also adding more than 11,000 to its total work force. That explains the lack of change in the unemployment rate.

* In Pasco, the unemployment rate bucked the regional trend, rising in February to 5.1 percent from 5.0 percent a year ago. The cause? Pasco's housing boom and population surge. While the county added 3,892 to its employment base, its work force grew even faster in the past year by 4,296. Thus the bump in its unemployment rate.

* In Hernando, the county also kept the same unemployment rate of 5.7 percent as last year in February. While Hernando employed 1,242 more people in the past year, the county's work force grew by 1,340.

* In Citrus, unemployment fell to 4.9 percent from 5.4 percent in the past year. That translates to more than 1,040 new jobs in a lightly populated but growing county that added only 885 to its work force.

Combined, in the past year the five-county area added more than 30,000 jobs, while its labor force expanded by nearly 30,000: to 1.32-million from 1.29-million.

East of Tallahassee, rural Madison County squeezed out South Florida's agriculture-heavy Hendry County for the state's highest unemployment rate in February of 6.4 percent.

Experts say Fort Myers was Florida's fastest growing metropolitan area in 2004. But let's reserve some kudos for the Tampa Bay metro area, which enjoyed the largest net gain in job growth in the state.

That's keeping the economic pedal to the metal.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at 727 893-8405 or trigaux@sptimes.com

[Last modified April 9, 2005, 07:10:29]


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