Palm Beach County unemployment falls to 3.9 percent in April

For the first time in nearly a decade, Palm Beach County unemployment is below 4 percent.

The county’s jobless rate fell to 3.9 percent in April, Florida’s labor department said Friday. Unemployment hasn’t been so low since May 2007, just before the global economy entered a death spiral. The county’s official unemployment rate fell to 3.2 percent during the housing bubble, then soared as high as 11.6 percent during the crash.

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In another hopeful sign, Palm Beach County’s job creation rose to an annual pace of 2.6 percent, topping the statewide mark of 2.5 percent. Palm Beach County’s job market long had trailed Florida’s pace of job growth.

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Now that jobs are plentiful, employers face a familiar challenge: Hiring people in a tight labor market isn’t easy.

“It’s good news for our economy, but it is challenging,” said Randy McDermott, a manager at staffing firm Robert Half International in West Palm Beach. “We’re hearing from our clients that it’s taking longer to hire people.”

Statewide, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 4.5 percent, just above the national rate of 4.4 percent.

Florida’s construction industry, hit hard by the Great Recession, showed the strongest growth. Construction employment jumped by 7.4 percent over the past year.

In Florida’s growth-oriented economy, building jobs are an indicator of the overall health of the economy, said Mekael Teshome, PNC Bank’s Florida economist.

“The broader economy is gaining traction,” Teshome said.

For workers, the combination of strong job growth and low unemployment should translate to raises as employers compete for workers.

“They’re going to have to pay more to attract the talent they want,” Teshome said.

McDermott, who places white-collar workers in accounting and other fields, said wages have been soaring. He knows of one worker recently won a $30,000 raise from an employer who didn’t want to lose a valuable employee in a tough labor market where skilled workers are in short supply.

“Our pay rates are up substantially, because candidates understand the supply-and-demand curve,” McDermott said.

But in the broader economy, wage gains have been stubbornly sluggish — presumably because many workers toil in low-wage jobs or struggling sectors. After languishing in the 2 percent range for much of the recovery, national wage growth rose to 2.5 percent for the year ending in April, the U.S. Labor Department said earlier this month.

“What’s been a head-scratcher is why it’s been so slow,” Teshome said. “It turns out there’s more slack in the labor market than these numbers are capturing.”

Weak spots include a still-large share of discouraged workers and a skills gap.

But with stocks near record highs, corporate bosses have enjoyed healthy pay hikes. In contrast to the 2.5 percent overall raise, average compensation for executives at publicly traded companies in Palm Beach and Martin counties rose 9 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to Palm Beach Post research. CEO pay at large companies nationally climbed 6 percent, according to separate studies by the AFL-CIO and compensation consultant Equilar, providing fresh fodder to critics who fret about growing income inequality.

Among Florida’s 67 counties, Monroe County had the lowest unemployment at 2.6 percent. Rural Hendry County’s 6 percent jobless rate was the highest.

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