Unemployment ticked up in January across Southwest Florida, as labor force grows

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

Unemployment is on the rise in Southwest Florida.

At least, it ticked up in January, from where it stood at the end of last year.

That's actually good news for local employers — and the local economy.

It reflects a growing labor market. 

"We have more people not only employed, but willing to work — and they are actively looking for a job," said Amir Ferreira, an economics professor and interim director of the Regional Economic Research Institute at Florida Gulf Coast University. 

A report released Monday by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity puts numbers on what employers hope is an emerging trend. It shows the labor force grew by more than 24,500 over the past year in Lee and Collier counties (combined).

Previously:And the hurt goes on: Region's labor shortage could get worse before it gets better

In case you missed it:"War on talent" continues, as unemployment rates drop across Southwest Florida

In January, Lee's workforce increased in number by 15,850, or 4.5%, over the year. Meanwhile, Collier's rose by 8,718, or 4.9%.

Retailers, such as Express, have been forced to cut their hours because of a shortage of workers in Southwest Florida.

From December to January, the labor force grew by 3,122 in Lee and 2,607 in Collier.

"That's a strong sign — that more people are looking for jobs," Ferreira said. 

Collier's unemployment increased to 2.9% in January, up from 2.3% a month earlier — but down from 4.7% a year ago, when the coronavirus pandemic proved a greater menace.

Lee's jobless rate rose to 3.4%, up from 2.7% in December —  and 5.5% a year ago. 

The region's other three counties — Hendry, Glades and Charlotte — all saw their unemployment rates edge up over the month.

"It sounds like it's a negative. But it's actually very positive," said Amy Hanna-Eckenrode, communications manager for CareerSource Southwest Florida. 

CareerSource matches job seekers with employers in the region.

Regionally, unemployment stood at 3.3% in January. That compared to 2.6% at the end of last year.

Collier continues to have the lowest rate of the bunch.

Experts consider 4% full employment, as there are always workers between jobs. So it's still very much an employees' market.

Businesses continue to search for workers to fill open positions

While there are more workers in the job market, it's still not enough. Businesses continue to struggle to fill positions, with job fairs galore and "Now Hiring" signs aplenty.

Some employers have been forced to cut their operating hours because of a shortage of workers, including retailers such as Express at the Coconut Point mall in Estero.

Express has been forced to cut its hours because of a shortage of workers in Southwest Florida.

CareerSource has two big hiring events coming up: One at Florida SouthWestern State College on April 5 and another at Florida Gulf Coast University on May 4. At least 100 businesses are expected to participate in each one, Eckenrode said.

The first fair will be more local, with a focus on Lee County, while the second will have a more regional appeal.

"Businesses have been overly anxious to come on board," Eckenrode said

Employers are "doing what they need to do" to attract workers, from offering more flexible schedules to raising pay and increasing benefits, she said.

Owner of the Roma Italian Bistro Pizzeria Edmond Metaj  speaks to applicant Hannah Kessling at a career fair held at The Naples Players at Sugden Community Theatre in Naples, Fla., on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021.

"Unfortunately, we are seeing some price increases, where they need to be placed, because of this," Eckenrode said.

24,200 jobs added to Southwest Florida metro areas

In January, the region's three metro areas — essentially made up of Collier, Lee and Charlotte — added 24,200 jobs over the year. Combined, they had nearly 504,000 nonagricultural jobs, up by 5% from a year ago.

These industries added the most jobs over the year: leisure and hospitality (+7,700 jobs); trade, transportation and utilities (+4,100 jobs), and professional and business services (+3,500 jobs).

The job gains in leisure and hospitality reflect just how far Southwest Florida's tourism industry has come since the World Trade Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic a little over two years ago.

As new cases of the coronavirus fade, more women are returning to the workforce after taking a break to care for young children or elderly parents during the crisis, which is likely contributing significantly to the labor force's growth in Southwest Florida, Ferreira said.

"We have a good rate of vaccination. We continue to improve on that. We have been seeing a steady decline in COVID. So I think the fear of COVID is washing away," he said.

Labor market continues to feel impact of COVID

Not all of the COVID-related constraints on the labor market are gone, however. For example, employment-based visas are still harder to come by — although it's getting a little easier with the reopening of embassies and consulates, Ferreira said.

"We always relied on immigration for many, many of the jobs in our labor market," he said. "But this is another missing link that is going to take some more time to recover." 

While Southwest Florida has seen its population surge, due to several factors, including COVID, Ferreira said, many of those new residents are remote workers, or retirees, so he doesn't think in-migration has been a huge factor in the growth of the area's labor force.

Applicant Hannah Kessling speaks to a representative of SOMA at a career fair held at The Naples Players at Sugden Community Theatre in Naples, Fla., on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021.

On the whole, Florida continues to see its labor force grow, which state officials attribute in large part to residents feeling more confident about returning to work as COVID concerns ease.

In January, the state's workforce grew by 318,000, or 3.1%, over the year.

The state's unemployment rate remained at 3.5% in January, unchanged from December. 

Florida gained 504,000 jobs over the year, an increase of 5.8%. Labor force participation totaled 10,448,000.

The latest data shows Florida's labor force exceeded its pre-pandemic level in June 2021 — a month sooner than previously reported.

The state has seen 15 months of labor force growth, resulting in a larger pool than it had in February 2020 — before the pandemic hit.

“Florida’s January 2022 numbers and the U.S. Department of Labor’s updated data for 2021 demonstrate that Florida continues to have a robust economic climate where individual Floridians have opportunities to get ahead — even in the face of inflationary federal policies that are causing the price of virtually everything to spike,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis in a statement. “Florida has surpassed 2019 numbers in almost every regard, including employment and labor force participation, while lockdown states continue to lag.”

Now Hiring

Here are a few upcoming hiring events:

CareerSource Southwest Florida is organizing two big events:

  • Career Fair, April 5, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Suncoast Credit Union Arena, Florida SouthWestern State College, Fort Myers. Dozens of employers are expected to participate, primarily from Lee County.
  • Regional Career Fair, May 4, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Alico Arena, Florida Gulf Coast University, south Fort Myers. More than 100 employers are expected to be there.

Better Together plans two Second Chance events on March 24, giving applicants with employment barriers — from homelessness to arrest records — a chance at securing jobs. These are the locations:

  • Lehigh Acres, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Rise Christian Church, 50 Bell Blvd. N.
  • Naples, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 3901 Davis Blvd.

Jeff Wilson Pool Service will host a job fair at CareerSource's Immokalee center on April 1, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Address: 750 S. Fifth St.

A Dunbar Career Exploration Event will be held April 13, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Dr. Carrie D. Robinson Center, 2290 Edison Ave., and the Fort Myers Stars Complex, 2980 Edison Ave.

The Seminole Casino Hotel Immokalee will host a hiring event March 23, from 9 a.m. to noon and from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. in its human resources building, behind the hotel.