Southwest Florida's labor force keeps growing — but not enough to meet demand

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

Southwest Florida's labor force continues to grow.

Yet, employment rates continue to fall, without enough workers to meet the demand, according to the latest data released Friday by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

In March, the unemployment rate in the Naples area — or Collier County — fell further to 2.2%, among the lowest in the state.

In the Fort Myers area — or Lee County — it dropped to 2.5%.

Last month, the workforce grew by 19,612 in the two counties over the year. 

The smaller market of Collier picked up 6,502 workers, while Lee added 13,110, or more than twice as many. 

Job seekers meet with potential employers at a regional career fair hosted by Career Source Southwest Florida on Tuesday, April 5, 2022 at Suncoast Arena on the FSW campus in Fort Myers.

Dig deeper:Southwest Florida's employers still face hiring challenges, despite growing labor force

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

In both markets, labor market growth exceeded 3.5%.

"It's still a good story. It's not fixing the problem completely. But it looks like we're on the way. Seeing good results," said Amy Hanna-Eckenrode, communications manager for CareerSource Southwest Florida.

CareerSource matches job seekers with employers in the five-county region that includes Lee and Collier counties.

In March, Lee added 12,800 private-sector jobs over the year, an increase of 5.4%. The industry gaining the most jobs in the county? Professional and business services — at 3,800.

That increase, in part, reflects the start of new businesses, as well as relocations to serve a growing population, Hanna-Eckenrode said.

Comparatively, Collier's job count grew by 6,700 jobs, or 4.7%. Leading the way, the leisure and hospitality, or tourism, industry added 2,800, as it continues to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic.

In the five-county region, the unemployment rate stood at 2.5% in March. That compared to 4.6% a year ago.

The region's labor force grew to 653,117, up by 23,068, or 3.7%, over the year. 

"More people are not only moving to the area, but they are coming here to work. They are working age, not necessarily just retirees," Hanna-Eckenrode said.

Here's what unemployment rates were in the region's other three counties in March:

  • Glades, 2.5%
  • Charlotte 2.8%
  • Hendry, 3.4%

There were a total of 16,237 unemployed residents in the five-county region.

Lee, Collier and Charlotte are Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). Combined, those three MSAs added 22,600 jobs in March over the year.

In those counties, leisure and hospitality led the way with 5,800 jobs added.

Other big gainers included trade, transportation and utilities (+3,400 jobs); mining, logging, and construction (+2,600 jobs); education and health services (+1,800 jobs), and financial activities (+1,400 jobs).

Southwest Florida's employers continue to aggressively recruit workers. That includes targeting more military veterans.

More than 20 companies participated in the first-ever SWFL Veterans Expo Thursday, held at Florida Gulf Coast University. It targeted the needs of post 9/11 veterans, showcasing both employment opportunities and helpful community services and resources. 

Participating employers included Amazon, Arthrex, Cintas, Envirostruct LLC, FineMark National Bank & Trust, Gartner and the Collier County's Sheriff's Office.

Kiersten Post, a senior university recruiter for Gartner, a technological research and consulting firm, said she hoped the event would result in a few hires. University students also made their rounds at the expo, so it represented an opportunity to reach soon-to-be college graduates, as well as veterans.

While the company offers great pay and benefits, Post said it's still a struggle to fill jobs. 

"It's competitive," she said. "There's no way around it."

Dozens of businesss were looking to hire employees at a job fair at the Crowne Plaza hotel at the Bell Tower Shops in Fort Myers on Wednesday April 17, 2019.

CareerSource Southwest Florida helped organize the hiring event.

After seeing success from a regional career fair held at FloridaSouthwestern in Fort Myers earlier this month, CareerSource plans to host an encore event at Florida Gulf Coast University on May 4.

More details can be found here: careersourcesouthwestflorida.com/category/job-fairs/.

The labor market remains tight across Florida.

As of March, Florida had nearly 510,000 jobs posted online, according to state data.

Statewide, employers have added jobs for 23 months in a row.

In a news release, Gov. Ron DeSantis pointed out that in March the state saw the largest single month of growth in the manufacturing sector in nearly two years. 

“The economic data underscores that Florida is outperforming the nation by protecting the freedom Floridians need to do business and drive economic success,” he said in a statement. “Industries like manufacturing continue to see growth because Florida prioritizes workforce development and expanding opportunities for businesses and families in our state.”

The state gained 497,800 jobs over the year in March, an increase of 5.7%. That compared to 4.5% nationally.

Over the year, Florida’s labor force grew by 325,000, or 3.2%, faster than the national rate of 2.4%.

The state's unemployment rate stood at 3.2% in March.