Unemployment in Manatee rises in July to 9.7 percent

MANATEE -- Unemployment in Manatee grew for the third consecutive month in July, keeping lockstep with a statewide trend that has stalled hiring this summer.

The county's 0.7 percentage-point spike last month lifted the jobless rate to 9.7 percent in July. But despite the hiccup, the market remains drastically improved from the 11.6 percent unemployment a year ago, according to data released Friday by the state labor department.

Across Florida, recent hiring improvements that have been building for much of the year have slowed of late as uncertainty surrounding the elections and a volatile Wall Street have tamed employer expectations.

The local dip also was attributed largely to seasonality. Unlike state and federal numbers, county unemployment is not adjusted to account for temporary downturns in industries like tourism and agriculture, which are typically at their worst each summer.

Economists predict the labor market will remain in a holding pattern for the remainder of the year, with the true test coming in early 2013.

Florida's unemployment rate in July rose to 8.8 percent even though the total labor force shrunk during the month, which helped the numbers appear stronger, said Sean Snaith, an economist with the University of Central Florida.

"It all points to a labor market that's struggling," Snaith said. "The report doesn't generate a lot of optimism. In context of what's going on in the national economy, this is not surprising, but we certainly would like to see better results."

The combined unemployment rate between Manatee and Sarasota jumped half a percentage point in July to 9.3 percent. The rate in July 2011 was 11.2 percent, according to the labor department.

In Sarasota, the 9 percent jobless rate was up from 8.7 percent in June but still down from the 10.9 percent a year ago, records show.

The two-county region now has gained 1,700 new jobs during the past 12 months, but 28,125 workers remain unemployed from a labor force of 302,196.

Retail, transportation, and education and health services added the most positions in the past year. Construction, on the other hand, continues to lose jobs.

The agency tasked with finding work for the area's unemployed still reports a steady flow of new openings. Big Box stores opening in the area including Marshalls and Costco also has helped.

"Part of it is seasonality," said Sally Hill, spokeswoman for Suncoast Workforce. "We're going to have some peaks and valleys, but overall the number of jobs being created is increasing. It's just going to take a while."

Across the state, the unemployment rate increased by two-tenths of a percentage point in July. A year ago, the rate was 10.6 percent.

The increase ends a trend in Florida where unemployment had improved or kept flat each month since the jobless mark slipped into single digits in December. The Sunshine State has seen positive year-over-year growth for 20 straight months.

Florida lost about 3,300 jobs in July, and the 8.8 percent unemployment last month also was higher than the national average of 8.3 percent, which has been true since February 2008.

Hendry County had the state's highest unemployment in July at 16.1 percent. Monroe, in the Florida Keys, had the lowest at 5.3 percent.

Hiring experts say employers remain cautious, and they're taking extra time to vet potential candidates. But most remain optimistic things are still slowly marching in the right direction.

"There's a little more caution then there was heading into elections," said Charles Fridley, managing partner of the Beneva Group, a Sarasota employment recruiter. "Anybody that wants to do a major expansion is waiting. Companies are hiring, but they're looking for the perfect candidate and spending more time in the interview process."

Hiring agencies said 2012 has been a tale of two markets. Although recent slowdowns have taken grip of the general workforce, professional services like IT and accounting continue to thrive -- boasting a jobless rate just half that of the overall labor force.

"When the recession hit in 2007, companies cut those services to the bare-bones," said Jamie Conley, regional vice president for Robert Half International. "They're now hiring back that support as business picks up."

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.