Unemployment is down, but so are the number of people in the labor force and high-paying careers.

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Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet have been boasting recently that Florida has the biggest drop in unemployment in the country—good news for Scott, since he pledged to create 700,000 jobs in his first term when he was campaigning for office. And indeed, Florida’s unemployment rate has declined dramatically from its recession highs. In November, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity announced that the state’s unemployment rate had dropped to 8.5 percent, 1.7 percentage points lower than the year before, and 2.6 percentage points lower than in 2010. That statewide drop is echoed on the Suncoast, where the unemployment rate dipped to 8.3 percent last October. Two years earlier, that unemployment number was above 12 percent in both Sarasota and Manatee counties. All good stuff, but what don’t those numbers tell us? Are we seeing robust job growth on the Suncoast, or does the rate simply reflect a shrinking labor force? And what kinds of jobs are people finding? What are they earning? Which sectors are doing well, and which poorly, and what do those facts say about the health of the Suncoast economy? Those questions, it turns out, are difficult to answer, and belie easy political narratives. Let’s take the long view. According to data compiled by the Sarasota County Office of Financial Planning, the county’s total population grew from 368,000 in 2006 to 384,000 in 2012. At the same time, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reports show a decline in the county’s total labor force, from 171,000 to 163,000. So while the county’s overall population has grown by 4.3 percent, its labor force has shrunk by 4.5 percent. The picture is similar in Manatee County, where population grew by 4.8 percent between 2007 and 2011 while the labor force contracted by 5.4 percent. Ray Schaub, an economist with the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, says those numbers are fairly typical. “The labor force has shrunk,” he says, “not just in Florida or Sarasota, but around the nation.” As the long-term unemployed give up the hunt for a new job, or choose to retire early, they drop out of the system, even if they’d prefer to still be working. Locally, those numbers might be improving somewhat. The labor force grew by 1.1 percent in Sarasota County and by .9 percent in Manatee County between 2011 and October 2012—the first significant positive shift in those numbers in some time. But what kinds of positions are the newly re-employed finding? One job market that remained robust in both Sarasota and Manatee despite the real estate crash and the Great Recession was healthcare. In every year since 2006, health care and social assistance has been Sarasota County’s biggest employment sector, as defined by the Census Bureau’s North American Industry Classification System. In Manatee, the field has made steady gains over the past few years to become the county’s second largest sector. All this is to be expected—our elderly population will always require a level of care above what you will find elsewhere. And Sarasota and Manatee’s other top industry is no surprise either: retail trade, which showed signs of stability throughout our recent tumult. Tourism remains a dominant industry in the area, and drives both retail jobs and those in the accommodation and food services sector, whose importance to the local economy has grown much larger in recent years. Between 2007 and 2009, the accommodation field became the third biggest in both Manatee and Sarasota. So where did the big blow to employment come during the recession’s firing frenzy? Construction, of course, but also the sector labeled administrative and support and waste management and remediation services. The category is broad, encompassing everything from office administration to clerical services and even waste disposal, and its decline has been most severe in Manatee County. In 2006, there were 26,000 Administrative jobs in Manatee; by late 2012, that number had dropped all the way to 5,000, an 81 percent collapse. While the stats are less dramatic in Sarasota County, the numbers are still down, and that downslide is problematic because the industry provides a solid wage. State data in 2012 put the average annual salary for an administrative employee in the North Port-Bradenton-Sarasota Metropolitan Statistical Area at $31,000—higher than in retail trade ($27,000) and well above the increasingly important accommodation and food services ($20,000). Statewide, Schaub says, the recovery has been centered around “lower-wage jobs” like those in the service industry. “We tended to lag behind the nation [in wages] anyway,” Schaub says. “We caught up to the nation in wages in 2006, and we’ve since fallen behind.” That has a lot to do with the major losses in the construction industry, which pays more generously, as well as Florida’s high percentage of retirees who, along with tourists, drive our service-oriented economy. All those statistical points reinforce what Steve Wisniewski, president of Communications Workers of America Local 3108, which represents workers from Tampa to Naples at companies like AT&T, sees happening at the grassroots level. “We plateaued at the bottom and we’re improving,” Wisniewski says, “but we’re losing the good jobs, the manufacturing jobs, the high-paying jobs, and we’re replacing them with low-paying jobs in the service industry.” And those wage numbers only tell part of the story. Restaurants, hotels and shops rarely offer quality health insurance, and “usually pensions are nonexistent,” Wisniewski says. “You may or may not have a 401(k) plan.” He blames political leaders for policies that encourage outsourcing what used to be stable blue collar work. One example: last year’s Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which Wisniewski says has led to the closure of bilingual call centers in Miami. He says those call center positions were hardly a gold mine, but that companies did pay “a decent wage,” with some form of healthcare attached. Wisniewski hears occasionally from former union members struggling to make it. “They’ve been laid off from a job that they’ve been paid $20, $25 an hour for, and they’re working service jobs,” he says, “and often these jobs are paying less than $10 an hour and it’s hard to survive.” “It’s an economy of service to take care of the wealthy, for the most part,” says Paul Anderson, who runs Suncoast Jobs, a Southwest Florida job posting website. While his site has seen new growth in technology, finance and retail, the twin pillars remain healthcare and the service industry. Anderson, who’s involved with the Sarasota Young Professionals Group, has several unemployed friends whose only options seem to be retail work. “I’ve got friends who have been looking for over two years,” he says. “They could always get the job at Target or whatever, but what’s the point?” A $10-to-$12-an-hour job won’t help them meet a mortgage payment. It’s a conflict Dawnyelle Singleton has experienced firsthand. After seven years of work, Singleton was laid off from an ad agency position in 2009. She went back to school and worked as a teacher, but was eventually forced to take a $14-an-hour office job that came with no benefits and no paid time off. “It was a struggle,” she says, “but I was working.” Singleton kept actively looking for something more in her field of graphic design. Last July, she landed a job as a community relations specialist for ITT Technical Institute in Bradenton. While it was a new industry for her, the position was a dream come true. “I loved it because it kind of married everything I was involved with,” she says. “I wasn’t sitting behind a desk for eight hours a day. I was out and about in the community.” The ITT job came with a solid $38,000 salary, full benefits, a 401(k) and a “cool office.” “The whole nine,” she says. After just a few months, she was laid off when ITT eliminated her position. Now she’s on the hunt again, surfing job websites like Anderson’s. Many listings don’t include any salary information, usually not a good sign, she says, and even the best-paying listings are well below her ITT salary. She’s considered going back to an hourly job like she did before, but says it’s not worth it. “I kept saying, ‘I want a job, I want a job,’ and I got a job,” Singleton says. “I didn’t get a career.” Walking that path again would just be “a waste of everyone’s time.” Singleton says she feels “grateful” she has freelance graphic design work to fall back on during the lean months, and has no desire to leave Sarasota because of family ties. But how many unemployed professionals like her have the same attachment to the area? It’s a problem political and business leaders bemoan, especially as they watch the region’s bright college graduates and young professionals leave to seek opportunities in other regions. Wisniewski credits Florida policy-makers for trying to use tax incentives to attract new businesses in well-paying high-tech fields, but says improvements in the job market that his members have seen are “small.” “If you work full time, you should be able to support yourself,” he says. “It’s hard to do that right now.”     Top Employment Sectors
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SARASOTA COUNTY Top Employment Sectors, 2006 Sector                                                                Number of Jobs                       Average Wage Health Care and Social Assistance                   22,936                          $39,993 Retail Trade                                                             22,139                          $27,749 Construction                                                            18,013                          $38,905   Top Employment Sectors, 2012 Health Care and Social Assistance                   25,581                          $41,260 Retail Trade                                                               20,715                          $27,900 Accommodation and Food Services                 16,174                          $20,700   MANATEE COUNTY Top Employment Sectors, 2006 Sector                                                               Number of Jobs                       Average Wage Administrative and Support/ Waste Management/ Remediation Services                                     26,496                           $29,936 Retail Trade                                                         15,965                           $24,444 Health Care                                                           12,747                          $36,756   Top Employment Sectors, 2012 Retail Trade                                                                15,460                          $25,440 Health Care                                                                14,879                          $41,164 Accommodation and Food Services                 11,229                          $18,212   SOURCE: Florida Department of Economic Opportunity     Labor Force and Unemployment 2006, 2012*   Sarasota Labor Force                 Unemployment 2006                             170,806                         3.1 percent 2012                             161,271                         8.3 percent   Manatee Labor Force                 Unemployment 2006                             147,479                         3 percent 2012                             141,263                          8.2 percent
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*2012 numbers go through October 2012 SOURCE: Florida Department of Economic Opportunity

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