Florida’s unemployment rate in January was lower than the national rate for the first time in five years.
That’s a positive shift, said economist Tony Villamil, business dean at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens. Usually Florida runs ahead of the national pace.
The unemployment rate dropped to 7.8 percent, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reported Monday, as 15,400 jobs were added to payrolls. The U.S. unemployment rate was 7.9 percent, but it declined to 7.7 in February. Florida’s February figures are due March 29.
“We’re getting a little ahead of the herd,” Villamil said. “The reason we’re not growing stronger is because we have headwinds.”
The recovery has been sluggish. Usually at this point in a recovery, growth is 2 to 2 1/2 percent, but the state is at 1.8 percent, Villamil said. Nationally and globally, the business environment has been tough.
The state added 127,500 jobs since this time last year, placing it it behind only Texas and California for job creation, and it was one of only eight states to show an unemployment rate drop in January, the Labor Department reported.
“Looking at 2013, I would expect Florida to add jobs at a faster pace than the national average,” said Mekael Teshome, economist with The PNC Financial Services Group.
In fact, revisions to the last two years of data, which occur at the beginning of each year, show Florida was doing better than previously thought. The state broke out of double-digit unemployment in October 2011, two months earlier than previously reported. And it fell below 8 percent in December with a revised 7.9 percent — the first time in more than four years below the 8 percent mark.
Several industries had notable growth in 2012, Teshome said, pointing to a 3.5 percent boost in leisure and hospitality, and more than 2 percent growth in professional and business services, retail trade, education and health services and construction.
Palm Beach County’s unemployment rate rose from 7.9 to 8.0 percent in January, as the number of people employed and the number of people participating in the labor force dropped. Martin County’s rate held at 8.2 percent and St. Lucie County’s rose 0.3 percentage points to 10.1 percent.
County figures are not adjusted for seasonal fluctuations as the state figures are and should not be directly compared. Over the past year, rates are down more than a percentage point for Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties and nearly a full percentage point for Martin.
Debora Shapiro, who was at the JOBS News career fair earlier this month, said she sees signs of improvement. In 2009 when she lost her full-time job, there was nothing to be had. Despite some temporary work, she is unemployed again.
And competition is fierce for what jobs there are.
“My whole life is hanging in the balance,” said the 54-year-old Palm Beach Gardens woman. After tapping savings and getting help from her family, her resources are depleted.
Only people who have searched for work in the prior four weeks are counted among the unemployed, meaning those who are waiting for the job market to improve could push the rate up when they decide to renew their job search.
The latest rates put Palm Beach County in the middle of the pack for Florida counties. Monroe County, which encompasses the Florida Keys and ecological reserves on the mainland, is lowest at 4.6 percent. Highest is rural inland Hendry County at 11.4 percent, where the sugar growers dominate the economy.
Looking at job creation, Florida is showing progress Teshome said. “All the pieces are in place for economic recovery.”
The housing recovery is especially important to Florida, he said. And government seems to be “less of a drag on jobs as in previous months.”
Statewide, all industry sectors except information and government gained employment in the past year. In Palm Beach County, information and manufacturing declined.
The benchmarking process appears to reverse the trend of declining jobs in leisure and hospitality for the county, confirming that other measures of tourism success showing increase hotel occupancy and more collected bed taxes were on target.
“The continued job growth and increase in the number of job openings in the region are positive signs that the area’s economic recovery is gaining traction,” said Steve Craig, president and CEO of Workforce Alliance, the county’s workforce development agency.
State employment by industry
chg from Dec., chg from 2012
Total nonfarm 6.4 million 0.2% 1.7%
Construction 347,000 0.6% 2.2%
Manufacturing 318,300 0.1% 0.7%
Retail trade 995,000 0.3% 2.3%
Information 132,000 0.5% -2.0%
Financial Svcs 497,200 0.1% 0.8%
business svcs 1.1 mil 0.2% 2.6%
health svcs 1.1 mil 0.3% 2.1%
hospitality 1.0 mil -0.1% 3.5%
Government 1.1 mil 0.1% -0.9%