South Florida job growth shows new signs of life

03/18/2013 11:00 AM

03/19/2013 12:02 AM

It took five years, but construction has finally started adding jobs to South Florida’s economy.

New figures out Monday show the construction industry growing again in Broward and Miami-Dade as rebounding home values and new interest from condo investors have builders once again landing projects and beefing up payroll.

“It had been miserable,’’ said Bob West, the son of a Miami-area architect now managing the construction of the new Miami Science Museum downtown , with a roster of about 150 workers. “I grew up in this business, and I’ve seen the good times and the bad. The last five years are like nothing I have ever seen.”

The milestone in construction hiring came in a generally positive January employment report for South Florida and the state. Delayed by statistical housekeeping, the first detailed peek at the local labor market showed broad job growth and some healthy signs on the unemployment front.

Florida saw its unemployment rate drop to 7.8 percent, the lowest since November 2008 and also the first time in five years that the Sunshine State came in lower than the national jobless rate, which stands at 7.9 percent.

Miami-Dade’s unemployment rate went the other way, spiking from 8.9 percent in December to 9.3 percent in January. But employment actually increased in January, but not fast enough to match a rise in job seekers. Although it boosts the unemployment rate, an increase in job seekers paired with an increase in job holders is generally a sign of an improving labor market as people feel more encouraged about their hiring prospects. The state and Miami-Dade unemployment rates are adjusted for seasonal changes in the economy; other local hiring figures don’t get the same treatment until later in the month.

Broward’s raw unemployment rate dropped from 7 percent to 6.7 percent in January. Monroe County continues to have the state’s lowest raw unemployment rate, with the home of the Florida Keys reporting a 4.6 percent unemployment rate in January.

The January numbers were strong enough that Gov. Rick Scott called a press conference at an Orlando Mistubishi factory to announce them Monday morning. Statewide, employers added 15,400 jobs between December and January, the best growth since April. “This jobs report is one Gov. Scott can hang on his refrigerator,” said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida. “It’s a lot better than what we were expecting, based on the progress we saw at the end of the year.”

For South Florida, January’s job growth still didn’t match the revised totals for much of 2012. But the 14,600 new jobs for Broward and the 11,600 for Miami-Dade were both far better than the initial figures released at the end of 2012. Those had Broward up just 5,000 payroll positions for the year and Miami-Dade losing jobs for the first time in four years. Those losses were erased by revised numbers issued Monday by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Miami-Dade, the largest local economy in Florida, government work remains the largest drag on hiring. Miami-Dade counted 5,400 fewer local-government jobs in January compared to the prior year.

In fact, January marked the 48th straight month of declines in local-government employment. The continued declines come as municipalities, school districts and the county crawl back from budget crises caused by depressed property-tax collections and pension funds ravaged by low interest rates and Wall Street’s woes during the recession. (The sequester of federal budget funds, amounting to about a 5 percent cut in non-military spending during 2013, took effect in March, two months after the time period covered by this jobs report.)

If local government remains an anchor for Miami-Dade, the construction industry has made a tiny shift into the plus column with a gain of 200 jobs.

Revisions made by the Bureau Labor Statistics have erased past losses and now show Miami-Dade’s construction industry began growing jobs again in August after 54 straight months of losses. In Broward, the revisions show the hiring streak began in late 2011 and now is in its 14th month of expansion with 3,200 new construction jobs.

The positive numbers match other indicators from the housing industry showing a definite turnaround, with housing values up 11 percent according to the Case-Shiller index and construction cranes returning to downtown Miami and the coast. West, Suffolk Construction’s project manager on the Science Museum site, said he thinks that after several years of a depressed building industry, new demand could eventually lead to more jobs in construction than job seekers.

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