Unemployment increases in Collier, stays even in Lee

Collier County’s July unemployment rate climbed while Lee County was virtually unchanged, though both, like most Florida counties, continue to outpace last year’s as well as national figures.

Collier County’s jobless rate, the 14th highest of the state’s 67 counties, rose to 12.1 percent, up more than half a point from June and more than 4 points higher than last July, according to Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation data released Friday.

Lee County, which ranked fifth, leveled off at 13.2 percent, but still sat more than 4 points higher than last July. County-level figures have not been adjusted for seasonal fluctuations.

The state unemployment rate, which has been adjusted for seasonal impacts, also mirrored June at 10.7 percent, or 987,000 people. Still, Florida is 1.3 points higher than the national rate of 9.4 percent, and experienced a 4.4 point jump from July 2008.

“Deterioration in the job market has moderated over the last month,” said Rebecca Rust, the agency’s chief economist. ... “Conditions have stabilized at least in the rate of decline over the month. ... We can only hope that it has stabilized and will start to improve.”

Unemployment varied widely by county, though two-thirds of them surpassed the national rate. Hendry County’s 16.4 percent jobless rate landed it at the top of the list while Liberty County was the lowest at 5.9 percent.

Counties such as Lee that have seen the highest unemployment typically have significant seasonal declines in agriculture or battered construction industries, the agency said. Counties that have managed to keep the numbers relatively low often benefited from a large base of government work or tourism in the summer months.

Florida had 401,000 fewer jobs in July compared with a year ago, a 5.2 percent decline. While construction leads the recession with job losses, that sector has now taken a back seat to other industries.

Trades, including merchant wholesalers, lost 99,100. The professional and business sector, such as legal services, ranked second, sloughing 90,600 jobs. Construction came in third having shed 78,900.

Health care was the only sector to add jobs.

Jim Moore, director of the Lee County Economic Development Office, said housing and construction will have to lead the economic recovery.

“Whether we like it or not, we do depend on construction and development in Florida,” Moore said. “For that balance and mix to change takes time, and by time I mean years.”

While Lee County, like the state, saw unemployment stay constant from June to July, Moore said he’s not ready to call the bottom.

“Two data points won’t give you the trend,” he said. “Hopefully (it) will continue. As we work through the excess housing stock, that hopefully will be a precursor to leveling or a decline in the unemployment rate.”

This has been the most severe recession of the last three, Rust said, falling in line with the 1974-75 downturn. October 1975 saw an 11 percent unemployment rate.

That’s the rate she said economists are predicting for next year, with a turnaround unlikely before the second quarter.

Unemployment isn’t expected to dip below 6 percent again until 2018, Rust said. Several factors, including a tight credit market, will drag out high unemployment longer than other recessions.

Unemployment is a lagging economic indicator, meaning the economy will improve before unemployment rates do. Employers are more likely to extend hours for current employees before they hire new staff, Rust said. As the economy improves, workers who became frustrated and stopped looking for work enter the job market again, creating a bigger pool of job seekers.

A few trends point to positive movement, Rust said.

Nationally, industrial production and exports have increased and credit card defaults have slowed.

In Florida, deterioration of the job market has slowed and home sales, though including bank purchases, are up.

Rust said stimulus dollars should have a bigger impact on the economy in the fall, when road and bridge projects begin and energy programs to retrofit houses and schools get under way.

But there are still hurdles, such as the state’s foreclosure ratio, the fourth highest in the nation, with one in every 154 homes in some stage of foreclosure.

The formula still points to a rough road ahead.

“Things won’t get better for a while,” Moore said.

Follow business and Bonita Springs reporter Tara E. McLaughlin at Facebook.com/tara.dailynews and Twitter.com/ndn_tmclaughlin.

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