Unemployment rates fell across Southwest Florida as 2020 came to an end
The job market in Southwest Florida rang in the new year with some good news.
In December, the region's jobless rate fell to 4.8%, down from 5.4% a month earlier, according to a report released Friday by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
All five counties saw their job picture improve over a month's time.
Here's how unemployment looked in December compared to the adjusted rates for November, based on the state's latest report:
- Collier: 4.3%, down from 4.7%
- Lee: 5.1%, down from 5.4%
- Charlotte: 5%, down from 5.1%
- Glades: 4.2%, down from 4.4%
- Hendry: 6%, down from 6.5%
Florida's unemployment stood at 5.8% in December, compared to 6.2% in November.
Many parts of Southwest Florida's economy have seen a quick recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, which is "outstanding," said Janeth Castrejon, communications manager for CareerSource Southwest Florida.
"It's a big surprise, a very positive surprise," she said. "Just a few months ago, I was trying to remain positive because the numbers were kind of struggling for a while, in getting back to full employment."
CareerSource matches job seekers with employers across the region.
Before the pandemic hit, Southwest Florida was considered a job seekers' market, with more jobs than workers to fill them.
In December 2019, the region's unemployment rate stood at just 2.7%. So, the economy isn't back to where it was before COVID-19 came along, with some industries still struggling, especially leisure and hospitality — or tourism, due to the pandemic.
However, many economists consider a 4% unemployment rate to be full employment, as there are always workers between jobs and businesses in flux. Collier and Glades counties, in particular, are edging closer to that magic number.
"It's not just one thing. It's so many different factors taking place in reducing these unemployment rates," Castrejon said.
Those factors include year-over-year job growth in several key sectors in the region, including: construction (+5%) and manufacturing (+1.7%). Those industries had higher growth rates here than the average for the state.
As for construction, it's going strong on both the residential and commercial sides, Castrejon pointed out, in part due to county spending on infrastructure projects, such as roads, parks and water and sewer improvements.
Companies are also making new investments in Southwest Florida, creating more jobs, despite the pandemic.
"The region is booming right now with the great opportunities that companies are bringing to the area by creating these new projects in all of the counties in Southwest Florida," Castrejon said.
The region's unemployment rates have come a long way from their highest points during the pandemic.
At their peak in April, unemployment rates stood at 14.6% in Lee County and 13.4% in Collier, for example.
Manufacturing is going strong in Southwest Florida, Castrejon noted. To meet the need for more workers in this sector CareerSource will host a virtual job fair Jan. 27, with more than a dozen manufacturing companies signed up to participate.
While there are many positives in the numbers, the economic effects of the pandemic are still evident in the negative ones.
Across Southwest Florida, the industries losing the most jobs year-over-year in December were leisure and hospitality (-11,700), government (-3,600), trade, transportation and utilities (2,300), educational and health services (-1,500), and information (-500).
While the busy season may not be as busy this year, Castrejon said she's glad to see the number of winter residents and tourists that have come to town, helping to boost the local economy.
Christopher Westley, dean of Florida Gulf Coast University's Lutgert College of Business, said it's interesting to see the jobless rates in Southwest Florida getting closer to what's considered full employment.
"Our region is closer to recovery than the state is right now," he said. "But that could have a lot to do just with the fact that we are in our season."
Typically, season runs from November to April — and it usually results in a flurry of hiring to meet higher consumer demands.
December is usually one of the busiest times of year, with the holidays generating more temporary jobs to keep up with all the spending, Westley said.
The other peak usually comes in March, when employment is often at its highest point in the region.
While unemployment rates have improved dramatically in Southwest Florida, Westley pointed out that it's not just because jobs are coming back or being created. The labor force has shrunk over the past year, which is contributing to those numbers.
Total private sector employment in Collier County, for example, dropped to 142,700 in December, down from 146,000 — or 2.3% — a year ago.
In Lee County, the workforce shrank even more over the same year, falling from 241,100 to 231,900 — or 3.8%.
The change in the size of the labor force could reflect workers who have moved elsewhere, who have stopped looking for jobs because they're discouraged, or who have retired.
While the changes in the workforce numbers are significant in the region, they're still lower than the state and national averages, so that's a positive, Westley said.
"It goes to show you that this is a more economically active part of the state," he said.
A year ago, the labor market was probably overheating, Westley said, meaning a correction was inevitable.
Nonagricultural employment in Lee, Collier and Charlotte — the region's three metro areas — stood at 481,600 in December, a decrease of 16,400 jobs — or 3.3% — from a year ago. But it was up from November.
From May to December, Florida gained a total of 748,100 private sector jobs.
In a news release announcing the numbers, Dane Eagle, the Department of Economic Opportunity's executive director, said: "Florida’s economy has shown significant progress for the past eight consecutive months and continues to outpace the nation in job growth."
He tipped his hat to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
"He remains committed to ensuring Florida’s economic success as he works with our state’s business leaders and community partners to continue bolstering Florida’s workforce," Eagle said.