NAPLES — A new report by the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows the state's economy grew by 0.5 percent in 2011 to about $754.3 billion.
Growth was slower than in 2010, when the state saw its economy increase by nearly 1 percent. Last year, Florida ranked 37th in the country for its growth rate, putting it closer to the bottom of the list among 50 states.
The report is based on gross domestic product (GDP), or the value of goods and services produced. That can include anything from real estate commissions to restaurant sales.
Often when economic growth slows, so does hiring. In Southwest Florida, there's hiring, but there's also hesitation, like there is around the state and the country.
"If economic growth is stagnant, it affects the hiring process, simply from a confidence level. Because it's an election year, although we are seeing growth, we are seeing a lot of wait-and-see attitude from the private sector," said Jim Wall, director of business development for Southwest Florida Works, which connects employers with job seekers.
On top of political uncertainties, a deadlocked Congress and global financial woes add up to a great deal of anxiety for consumers and CEOs alike, said Mike Reagen, president and CEO of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce.
"The reality clearly is that the economy is sluggish. There is no simple silver bullet to fix everything," he said.
Unemployment has been shrinking in Southwest Florida and statewide. The state's jobless rate dropped to 8.7 percent in April, but that's far higher than where it was before the Great Recession hit. In 2006, unemployment dipped to 3.3 percent.
In April, Collier County's jobless rate fell a few percentage points to 7.4 percent. Lee County's rate stood at 8.5 percent, falling from 8.9 percent in March 2012.
The report by the Bureau of Economic Analysis also showed the recession in Florida was worse than first thought. According to the latest data, Florida's economy declined by 5.4 percent in 2009, the year the recession officially ended. In comparison, the U.S. economy shrank by 3.8 percent in that year.
"We have a deeper hole to dig ourselves out of," said Russ Weyer, a senior associate with Fishkind & Associates in Naples.
He said that's because the state's economy is not diverse enough.
"We have always been a destination resort, a vacation destination," Weyer said. "That is going to change in the future. The governor is looking at that in terms of job creation."
Gov. Rick Scott hasn't reviewed the Bureau of Economic Analysis report.
"Regardless of what the numbers say, the real measure of how bad things are come from the individuals who can't find work or from the family that's struggling to put food on the table or pay the electricity bill," said Lane Wright, his spokesman.
Fortunately, he said, there's hope.
"With unemployment down to 8.7 percent in April, dropping at a rate twice that of the federal government, we know we're moving in the right direction," Wright said. "But there are still more than 800,000 Floridians looking for a job."
He said the governor is focused on improving education opportunities, helping businesses succeed so they can hire people, and ensuring that government doesn't raise the cost of living for Floridians.
In the Bureau of Economic Analysis report, North Dakota ranked No. 1 with a growth rate of 7.6 in 2011. Other top performers last year included Oregon, West Virginia, Texas and Alaska.
It's hard to take statewide data and apply it locally, Weyer said.
In Southwest Florida, he said, his firm is starting to see more interest in market studies, which is a sign that more companies are interested in building projects and locating or expanding their businesses in Southwest Florida.
There are signs hiring could pick up later this year. Businesses that downsized are showing more interest in hiring back key employees to help them grow again, Wall said.
He said his agency is getting more questions about the training programs its job seekers are in and some employers are already starting to think about next season.
Wall expects more employers to hire earlier for season this year, instead of waiting until the last minute. That way, the employees will be "truly trained when our winter visitors come," he said.
"I'm not just talking about tourists," he said. "We have some very long-term seasonal visitors that use other goods and services throughout the area, which would include health care."
Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden