Unemployment rate in Collier, Lee lowest in more than 5 years

In this Oct. 23, 2013, photo, job applicants arrives for an internship job fair held by the Miami Marlins, at Marlins Park in Miami. The government issues the October jobs report, on Friday, Nov. 8, 2013, which had been delayed a week because of the government shutdown. ( AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

In this Oct. 23, 2013, photo, job applicants arrives for an internship job fair held by the Miami Marlins, at Marlins Park in Miami. The government issues the October jobs report, on Friday, Nov. 8, 2013, which had been delayed a week because of the government shutdown. ( AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

Doors are swinging open for job hunters.

A year ago, the jobless scene was far different in Southwest Florida. Unemployment rates stood at nearly 8 percent in Lee County and at 7.5 percent in Collier County. They’ve improved dramatically since then, with the local, state and national economies continuing to recover from the Great Recession.

The latest numbers released Friday by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity show Lee’s unemployment rate dropped to 5.8 percent last month, while Collier’s fell to 5.4 percent. That was lower than the statewide rate of 6.2 percent, which was at its lowest point in 5 1/2 years.

"It’s nice to see doors opening and employers saying, ‘Hey, we are ready to start hiring now.’ It’s good news," said Beth Barger, center supervisor for Southwest Florida Works in Naples.

Last month’s jobless rates were down a few percentage points from November, when they were at 6.3 percent in Lee and at 5.8 percent in Collier.

"People are getting hired faster. There is more of a variety of jobs out there," said Barger, meaning there’s more than just the typical seasonal and part-time jobs in tourism and retail.

Southwest Florida Works is a state-supported agency that matches job-seekers with openings. More employers have come knocking on its door for help.

"It’s not a mad dash, but it’s steady," Barger said. "I would rather have it steady and progressive, than have the mad dash because slow and steady is going to maintain us."

In Collier, the agency is working with Walmart off Collier Boulevard, near Marco Island, and Wynn’s Market in Naples, to find year-round workers, such as cashiers, Barger said. There are also several on-the-job training positions available, for everything from auto mechanics, to electricians’ helpers to computer support, and Physicians Regional Healthcare System is searching for two cooks, she said.

Many of the open jobs require a flexible schedule, which may include working weekends and nights, she noted.

Larger employers continue to expand in the region, including women’s retailer Chico’s FAS Inc., technology researcher Gartner Inc. and medical manufacturer Arthrex. With its eventual relocation to Estero, Hertz is also adding hundreds of jobs to the mix.

Bruce Seigel, marketing and sales director for The Ritz-Carlton Resorts of Naples, said his two resorts continue to hire. With about 1,400 workers, they are at their highest level of employment in three years, he said.

"We’ve had more applicants who want to work in our environment than ever before," Seigel said.

With unemployment rates continuing to fall, there’s a concern there could soon be a shortage of workers locally to fill jobs, especially higher skilled ones. But it doesn’t appear to be a widespread problem yet.

"We’ve heard from several employers that they are having issues filling positions, but those are positions that are very specialized in the skill sets that they need," Barger said.

Jim Wall, communications director for Southwest Florida Works, said some employers filled seasonal jobs earlier this season, knowing there was more competition out there for workers. In some cases, he said, they hired people for season, with intentions of keeping the workers year-round if they panned out.

"With the drop in unemployment numbers, they don’t want to give up good employees because they may not get them back," Wall said.

The tourism industry has been a leader in the local recovery, but more recently there has been an uptick in employment in the professional ranks, including the hiring of more accountants and customer service agents, he said.

"We have seen an increase in employers utilizing our centers, especially for what we call mass hiring, which means a business has more than one opening," Wall said.

With a surge in new home building in Southwest Florida, construction is one of the industries that’s already facing a shortage of workers. To help with that, Southwest Florida Works is looking to start training programs for electricians, plumbers and other skilled trade workers.

"There was a time when there were just no jobs available and that can be very demoralizing. Now there are jobs available, which is good news," Wall said.

The workforce in Lee and Collier counties is growing, mirroring the statewide trend. But there’s still room for improvement in Southwest Florida, said Gary Jackson, an economics professor at Florida Gulf Coast University. He noted the unemployment numbers don’t factor in part-time workers, who haven’t been able to find full-time jobs, nor do they count discouraged workers, who aren’t actively looking for jobs.

"Yes, it’s great relative to where we have been," Jackson said of the latest jobless rates. "But are we where we need to be? No. There are some folks who have been unemployed for a long time that are needing to work."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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