SW Fla. jobless numbers bad, and experts say they'll get worse

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The job hunt isn’t getting any easier in Southwest Florida.

Unemployment continues to rise and it’s expected to get worse before it gets better.

In January, Lee County’s jobless rated jumped to 11.5 percent. That was up from 10.1 percent in December and 6.4 percent a year ago, according to the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation.

Collier County’s unemployment rate also grew in January to 8.8 percent, up from 7.9 percent a month earlier and 5.1 percent a year ago.

“That’s bad news. As the employment continues to spiral downward, there is just no telling at this point where the bottom numbers are,” said Jim Wall, director of business development for the Southwest Florida Workforce Development Board.

There were 13,394 residents out of work in Collier in January. In Lee, there were 32,040 without jobs.

Fort Myers resident Brody Frey joined the ranks of the unemployed in Lee County in January when he lost his restaurant job over a customer complaint. He’s had no luck in his search for a new job and he’s since seen more friends at his apartment complex laid off.

“It’s the worst I’ve seen it in the eight years that I’ve been down here, for unemployment,” said Frey, 34.

He pays child support for two children and it’s especially hard to find a job that covers that cost and his other bills.

He’s applied for a variety of jobs with a number of employers, including 7-Eleven and Target.

“I’ve actually applied for 19 jobs and not gotten any calls back,” he said.

Statewide, the unemployment rate in January grew to 8.6 percent, up from 7.6 percent in December and 5 percent a year ago. There were 800,000 jobless residents out of a labor force of 9,256,000.

Federal officials on Friday announced a national unemployment rate of 8.1 percent for February. It was 7.6 percent in January.

Florida’s jobless rate in January was the highest it has been since September 1992, when it hit 8.9 percent.

“We are continuing to have more layoffs in the state of Florida,” said Rebecca Rust, an economist with the state’s Agency for Workforce Innovation, during a conference call Friday.

In this recession, she said, construction has shed the most jobs in the state. The industry lost more than 100,000 jobs between January 2008 and January 2009.

The only sectors gaining jobs in Florida in the last year were private education and health-care services, up 2.3 percent, and government, up 0.4 percent, Rust said.

From December to January, the number of Floridians without jobs grew by 91,000.

“Our job loss is greater than in the last three recessions,” Rust said.

The state’s total non-agricultural employment in January was 7,557,700, representing a job loss of 355,700, or 4.5 percent, compared to the same month a year ago.

In this recession, Florida started losing jobs earlier than the nation.

States with high growth, high construction levels, high home values and strong markets for second homes have been hit the hardest, Rust said.

“So we may lag the nation in coming out of this,” she said.

By 2010, the state’s unemployment rate is projected to reach 10.1 percent.

According to the Agency for Workforce Innovation, the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area lost 5,700 jobs in the mining, logging and construction sectors between January 2008 and January 2009 — a 20.7 percent decline.

In trade, transportation and utilities, 6,000 jobs vanished, representing a 12.4 percent decline.

Another 3,400 jobs were shed in the leisure and hospitality industries during the past year in Lee County — a 10.6 percent drop. Retail trade, including restaurants, dropped 4,700 jobs, a 12.6 percent decline.

In the Naples-Marco Island area, the mining, logging and construction sector shrank by 3,800 jobs, or 22.9 percent, year-over-year in January. In the financial sector, jobs were down by 600, or 7.6 percent, for the year. Manufacturing jobs fell by 300, or 9.7 percent. They were down 2,000 in the leisure and hospitality industries _ an 8.2 percent drop.

It’s not good to see unemployment rising in the busy winter season in Southwest Florida, said Wall, with the Southwest Florida Workforce Development Board. It’s usually when employment is at its highest.

He expects to see the region’s unemployment rates shoot up in the coming months, especially after winter visitors and residents head back up North.

The rising unemployment is sending more workers back to school in Southwest Florida and forcing them to change the way they search for work, said Marietta Mudgett, executive director of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce.

“We know that there are people who have had to leave the area to look for other positions, or who have had to move back in with their parents or in with relatives to share the expenses of living and are taking whatever jobs they can to contribute to the expenses _ to the income,” she said.

The chamber has lost members as some have closed their doors or looked to cut costs in hard times.

Membership is down to 1,159, from a peak of more than 1,300 a few years ago, Mudgett said.

“As unemployment rates continue to rise, it further emphasizes and supports our need to diversify the economy,” said Tammie Nemecek, president of the Economic Development Council of Collier County, in an e-mail. “As summer is quickly approaching, and our seasonal population will disappear, I think we all need to be prepared that the worst is not over.”

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