This is the fourth day of a series of stories in a Daily News 8-day Special Report: "In Recovery?" looking at whether the economy is rebounding in Southwest Florida.
NAPLES — Years of skyrocketing unemployment rates in Southwest Florida are finally giving way to more normal levels. But "normal" may have a new meaning: unemployment rates that are at least double what they were before the housing market collapsed and the recession hit.
It may never be like it was in 2004 and 2005, when unemployment rates rested between 2 percent and 3 percent, construction companies could hardly hire enough employees and parts of Southwest Florida regularly led the nation in job growth, employment specialist Jim Wall said.
"When we get to seven and eight percent or below eight percent, those are indications that the economy is recovering or has recovered," said Wall, director of business development for the Southwest Florida Workforce Development Board. "They're just not going to get back to the levels they were."
While there's some disagreement about what the new level will be — one economist put the new "normal" at closer to 6 percent unemployed — experts seem to agree on that point. And they agree that Southwest Florida is in recovery mode.
The housing bubble, combined with decreased spending and a financial crisis, led to a nationwide recession that started in December 2007, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Although the economy began recovering in June 2009, unemployment rates tend to lag behind economic recoveries. And this area has lagged behind others in recovering, Florida Gulf Coast University professor Gary Jackson said.
Collier County's unemployment rate was highest in 2010, when it hit 12 percent. It has been falling since.
In March of this year, for the 20th consecutive month, unemployment fell — this time to 7.8 percent in Collier County, according to the state Department of Economic Opportunity. Perhaps because of its more affluent population and higher education attainment levels, Wall said, Collier is recovering more quickly than other parts of the region and state: Lee's unemployment rate was 8.9 percent.
Statewide, the unemployment rate fell to 9 percent — the largest monthly decline since October 1992.
Job opportunities are popping up at businesses across Southwest Florida, with companies saying they have resumed hiring after a slowdown prompted by a faltering economy.
At the Ritz-Carlton, which has about 1,300 employees between its Naples beach and golf resorts, there are at least 12 openings, said Allison Sanchez, the resort's assistant director of human resources.
"We slowed the hiring process for a little while, but then we had great guest demand again and we needed to hire," she said.
Sanchez said the company has seen about a 10 percent increase in guests and reservations over last year, and has been hiring for some time now.
Several other Southwest Florida area companies said they, too, are hiring. And at Southwest Florida's higher education institutions, career services directors say graduating seniors have had more success finding jobs in the last couple of years compared to the years immediately following the collapse.
In March, Collier County’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 Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. Lee’s unemployment rate fell to 8.9 percent last month, down from 9.4 percent in February and 11 percent a year ago.
In a Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce survey of 201 Naples-area business owners late last year, 41 percent said they believed the economy was improving, 46 percent said it was holding steady and 13 percent said it was in decline. Two-thirds of the optimists planned to hire more workers.
Student employment rates aren't tracked at Florida Gulf Coast University or Edison State College, but career services directors at each school said more employers are posting job and internship opportunities.
Shamecca Johnson, 34, who will graduate with a bachelor's degree from Edison this week, said her concerns about finding a job have been eased some by the falling unemployment rate.
"When I hear that the rate is going down, that's a good thing," said Johnson, who is still searching. "Maybe some of us can keep our homes now and provide better for our families."
One newly employed student, FGCU senior Christina Aleman, 22, said she was confident she'd find a job, but felt especially fortunate after years of bad news about the economy.
"I was so excited, I started screaming," she said of hearing she'd landed a sales job at the Fort Myers branch of Ferguson, which sells kitchen and bathroom appliances.
It's been a slow recovery, Jackson said, for a couple of reasons: Strict credit standards mean it's difficult for small businesses to get loans; the elimination of jobs in certain industries means many workers have had to retrain.
"Things are improving, but not as fast as we would like," said Jackson, who directs the university's Regional Economic Research Institute. "We still have elevated unemployment that's hard on a lot of families and certainly hard on the area."
The construction industry, especially — an integral part of the region's economy — took a significant hit with the housing bust. Many companies laid off employees; others declared bankruptcy or closed as the industry faltered beginning around 2007.
Those jobs haven't come back.
The industry that employed more than 20,000 in Collier in 2006 employed 8,865 in 2009, the most recent year for which Census-related numbers are available. On a state-run employment website called employflorida.com, there are 314 potential candidates for the three construction jobs available in Southwest Florida.
The industry may never return to what it was, Wall said. But there are signs it is improving as more people move here.
"The fact of the matter is we still live in a very nice place," Wall said. "And if there's any indication there's going to be some stability in the economy and there's some growth and jobs available, we're going to see people migrating to the area just for the quality of life."
That will lead to continuing job gains that further improve the economy.
But while the outlook appears bright, many business owners say they're still cautious.
"It's definitely cautious optimism," said Ted Bill, president of Naples-based manufacturing company Pelican Wire, "after what we've been through the last couple of years."
Added Wall: "I truly do think that Southwest Florida has gone through its darkest days, although I think there will be a new norm or a new reality long into the future."
This is part of an 8-day Daily News series, "In Recovery?" about whether Southwest Florida's economy is rebounding. Tomorrow: New businesses.