Collier unemployment rate drops below 8 percent, Lee below 9

Jobless numbers in Southwest Florida continue to improve, following a state trend.

Lee County’s unemployment rate dropped below 9 percent in March, while Collier County’s fell below 8 percent.

“It’s a reflection that we had a really good season, compared to the previous year,” said Gary Jackson, an economics professor at Florida Gulf Coast University. “Tourism is very strong in Collier and Lee County.”

Last month, Florida’s unemployment rate made its biggest monthly decline since October 1992. The state’s unemployment rate fell to 9 percent, down 0.4 percentage points from February, according to the Department of Economic Opportunity.

A year ago, the state’s jobless rate was at 10.7 percent. The U.S. rate for March was 8.2 percent.

“The largest monthly unemployment rate decline since 1992 is a milestone all Floridians can celebrate,” Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement. “By signing a budget that devotes more than $1 billion to education, Florida is positioning itself to have a globally competitive workforce, which is key to our state’s long-term prosperity.”

The March rate for the state was the lowest since January 2009, when it was at 8.7 percent.

Last month, Collier’s jobless rate hit 7.8 percent. That was down from 8.2 percent in February and 9.8 percent a year ago, according to the Department of Economic Opportunity.

Lee’s unemployment rate fell to 8.9 percent in March, down from 9.4 percent in February and 11 percent a year ago.

“I would say they are still high, relative to what we would expect in normal times,” Jackson said. “We are still adjusting to the housing bubble and the financial crisis. We are still in recovery, which means we are not back to the level we want to see.”

As the busy tourism season winds down in Southwest Florida, the unemployment numbers could tick back up again in the coming months in this region, he said.

Joe Paterno, executive director of Southwest Florida Works, a state-funded employment and career agency, said recovery on the job front is slower than anticipated.

“I think people would like to see it a little bit quicker,” he said. “But at least we are seeing some positive signs. Employers are starting to hire and people are going back to work.”

John Tippins, the interim director at the Naples career center for Southwest Florida Works, said he’s seeing more job orders.

“They tend to be not necessarily the big ones, but companies looking to hire five or six people. That has been going on the last couple of months,” he said.

His career center has been working with Naples-based Arthrex, a medical device manufacturer that is expanding, to fill jobs for machinists.

Other jobs are coming from a leather manufacturer in the Dominican Republic that’s expanding in North Naples. ValueCentric, which makes software for the pharmaceutical industry, is also hiring. A pest control company also contacted the center recently after landing a big contract.

“I think it’s kind of the smaller companies that we are starting to see hire. A lot them are in manufacturing, which is a little bit of a turnaround from what we’ve seen before,” Tippins said.

In Collier, there are still 11,915 workers without jobs. In Lee, there are more than twice as many — 25,135.

“We still have a lot of people looking for work,” Tippins said.

In the state, there are 836,000 jobless workers, out of a potential labor force of 9.3 million. The March numbers do not include frustrated workers who are no longer in the market and employees who are working part-time instead of full time.

Statewide, the number of non-agricultural jobs increased to 7.3 million last month, up 89,800, or 1.2 percent, from a year ago. That was 10,800 more jobs than in February.

Last month, federal and state economists revised fairly dramatically the unemployment figures going back more than a year, showing joblessness in the state doesn’t now appear to have been as bad at the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 as originally thought. For example, earlier calculations had the December 2010 jobless rate at 12 percent, but newer figures show it was likely closer to 11.1 percent.

Last month, health care and education continued to post some of the most robust year-to-year gains in the state. State government employment dropped by 3.2 percent over the year.

Monroe County had the state’s lowest unemployment rate at 5.1 percent last month. Flagler County had the state’s highest jobless rate in March at 12.2 percent.

In all, 10 Florida counties were still in the double digits.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

© 2012 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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