Unemployment lowest since 08 in Miami-Dade

Miami-Dade County’s unemployment rate dropped below 9 percent last month for the first time since the end of the recession, as a slow recovery continues to chip away at the damage done by the economic crisis.

Friday’s statewide employment report mostly captured an improving trend that remains too slow to signal any sort of major turnaround in hiring. Florida’s unemployment rate inched down a tenth of a percentage point to 8.7 percent in September, and South Florida posted weak job growth for the month.

“We’re sort of bumping along,’’ said Sean Snaith, an economist at the University of Central Florida. “The takeaway from this report is the labor market is slowly improving, but the pace of the improvement continues to be inadequate.”

In the context of a fairly lukewarm jobs report, Miami-Dade’s unemployment rate stands out as a potential milestone. The drop in Miami-Dade’s unemployment rate from 9.2 percent in August to a seasonally adjusted 8.8 percent in September brought the jobless measure down to its lowest level since December 2008.

The decline may not be all good: while employment increased last month, Miami-Dade also saw a decline in job seekers. If the pool of job applicants had increased as well, unemployment would have dropped to just 9 percent.

Broward’s unemployment rate dropped from 7.9 percent to 7.5 percent. But a more accurate measure of Broward’s hiring market will come later this month when the Labor Department issues seasonally adjusted unemployment rates for moderate-sized metropolitan areas. As a large metro, Miami-Dade receives its seasonally adjusted rate the same day as the states.

A separate survey of businesses showed some of the year’s slowest job growth.

In Miami-Dade, employers expanded payrolls by only 6,400 positions over 12 months, far less than the 20,000 jobs they were adding each month at the start of 2012. For Broward, September’s extra 2,000 payroll positions were also well below the 5,000 jobs that employers were adding at the start of the year.

Hiring by local government continues to be a major anchor in South Florida, with a loss of almost 4,000 jobs in September from the prior year.

All of the losses came in Miami-Dade, where school employment has been on the decline and governments continue to leave positions unfilled. While Broward’s local government sector added a mere 200 jobs in September, the county has about 7,000 fewer government jobs from before the recession and Miami-Dade is down about 16,000.

The monthly numbers don’t detail the gaps in government employment, but public schools make up a significant chunk of the payrolls. Faced with a drop in property taxes, school systems continue to cut payroll while trying to preserve smaller classrooms.

Since his arrival last year, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie has made boosting classroom instruction a top priority – he describes it as “investing in what matters most.” That strategy this year led the district to hire hundreds of additional teachers, as well as propose a two percent teacher pay raise.

But with the district’s overall budget still tight, other departments have had to endure cuts. Employment at Broward schools fell by less than 300 positions. The cuts aren’t major, but they add up across government. In Miami-Dade, the county government is down about 600 jobs, thanks to cuts and attrition. Fort Lauderdale spokesman Chaz Adams said the city’s payroll shrank by about 60 positions this year, while the county is down 55 positions.

"Still trying to do more with less," said Kevin Kelleher, Broward’s human resources director. "Everyone's hopeful that it will get better."

In South Miami, the squeeze on property taxes helped prompt a move to privatize some city services, including janitors, technical support and map-making for zoning applications. About 30 payroll positions have been cut during the last two years, leaving roughly 150 workers, said Mayor Philip Stoddard.

“It saved us money, and we got much better service,’’ he said.

In one hopeful sign from September, temporary hiring posted its first gain of the year in Broward, though it was a tiny increase of just 300 jobs. Temporary hiring in Miami-Dade increased for its 26th straight month. When employers bring on temporary help it can be a sign of optimism, a crucial factor as the holiday shopping season approaches.

“It seems to be getting busier,’’ said Victoria Villalba, owner of the Victoria & Associates staffing firm in Miami. “I’m really starting to see a positive turn.”

Miami Herald staff writer Andrea Torres contributed to this report.