by Karen Brune Mathis
Employment peaked in Jacksonville in May 2007, when the five-county region supported 639,000 jobs.
It could be years before the area sees that level again.
“We are considerably worse off,” said Paul Mason, a University of North Florida economics professor.
Mason spoke Wednesday to a Jacksonville Community Council Inc. study group that is investigating the topic of ”Recession Recovery and Beyond.”
Mason joined WorkSource President and CEO Bruce Ferguson and Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce Cornerstone President Jerry Mallot to explain the state of the economic recovery in the seven counties of Northeast Florida.
The study covers the metropolitan statistical area of Baker, Clay, Duval, Nassau and St. Johns counties along with Flagler and Putnam counties. The seven counties comprise the First Coast.
The national recession began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, although the recession ended in Florida just a year ago, according to University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith.
Mason said Northeast Florida needs five to 10 years of solid growth to return to pre-recession levels.
“That is sobering to understand,” he said.
Since May 2007, area jobs fell to a low of 574,300 last July, rising to 582,700 by November.
That means Northeast Florida lost 56,300 jobs from the peak to November, almost the population of Greenland.
Asked what the unemployment rate would be if it included underemployed and discouraged workers, Mason estimated it closer to 15 to 20 percent.
The JCCI group wants to determine ways for the area to best recover and create the jobs necessary for growth.
Ferguson presented the statistics that outline the state of employment and unemployment in the area.
• The five-county metropolitan area experienced a 9 percent job loss since the peak employment in May 2007.
• Construction jobs accounted for almost 40 percent of that job loss.
• Along with construction jobs, the greatest losses were in professional and business services; trade, transportation and utilities; financial activities; and manufacturing.
• The greatest job gains came in education and health services.
• From December 2009 to last November, the top occupations with unemployment compensation claims in the Jacksonville area were customer service representatives (3,293). With more than 1,000 each were administrative services managers, other managers, accountants and auditors, retail sales people and cashiers.
• While separated into categories, three construction-related groups totaled more than 2,000 claims.
• People from 30 to 54 years old represented 41 percent of the unemployed population.
• However, younger workers from 16 to 29 were disproportionately represented. That age group accounted for 25 percent of the employed population, but 47 percent of the unemployed.
• Using averages from 2005-09, blacks and African-Americans had the highest unemployment rate at 12 percent, while the rate was about 6 percent for the white population.
• While blacks and African- Americans constituted about 20 percent of the employed population, they represented 35 percent of the unemployed. Whites were 75 percent of the employed and 61 percent of the unemployed.
• Unemployment rates were higher for those with less education. Workers with less than a high school education faced an unemployment rate topping 12 percent, while those with a bachelor’s degree or higher saw less than a 4 percent rate.
• However, the share of the unemployed population was the same for the college-educated and those with less than a high school education. Each group represented 17.2 percent of the unemployed population.
“The recession knew no difference,” said Ferguson.
Ferguson also shared the top online job openings in Northeast Florida. Registered nurses, Web developers and physical therapists topped the list.
Ferguson told the 60 study participants, who met at the North Florida Regional Council offices near Southpoint, that the community and individuals can increase economic competitiveness for jobs in three areas.
• Promote a culture of lifelong learning for everyone, meaning everybody should keep current and updated on job skills.
• “Eradicate the myth” that all high school graduates need a four-year college degree and instead recognize that some students need or want to take a job immediately and should have a diploma and certification or technical training to do so.
• Address the skills gaps in the current work force.
Mallot shared the presentation that the chamber gives to economic development prospects, saying that the chamber completed 26 projects in 2010 creating 3,260 jobs.
“We’ve come off a pretty good year of economic development,” he said.
Mallot said that medium to large-size companies are showing “much more confidence” in the economy, but that there’s uncertainty among small businesses.
The chamber presentation, which varies depending on the industry of the prospect, showed Jacksonville’s promoted advantages of location, population growth, median age, transportation system and its history of avoiding hurricanes and other natural disasters, among other factors.
However, the area runs into issues with its lack of nonstop air service, which corporate headquarters need. ”This is a really important factor,” said Mallot.
Mason provided the last presentation, noting that his wife not only says his glass is always half empty but also is draining through a slow leak.
Mason said the economy in 2011 should be better than in 2009 and 2010 and he said the holiday season probably was up 5 percent over 2009, but that is still below the peak in 2007.
“Much of the strength of the recovery will depend on whether businesses treat the holiday season as the impetus to increase fixed investment, motivating increased hiring,” Mason said in a prepared report distributed at the meeting.
He also made these points:
• In tracking October unemployment rates among the seven counties, he found that the lowest and highest rates varied among counties from 2005 to 2010.
• Unemployment rates tripled or quadrupled in the area from the lowest to the highest points over the six years.
• Historically, Northeast Florida has had advantages in recovering from recessions, but those “turned against us” during the recent downturn as population growth slowed, fewer tourists visited, agriculture demand declined and “a recession far more oriented toward real estate and service industries,” primarily financial, took hold.
“Those characteristics that protected our area from the worst of recessions in the past did not do so this time,” Mason wrote in the distributed report.
“The most recent recession hit us much harder than the average region and the continued weakness in our core industries has extended the damage,” he wrote.
As for local policies that can affect economic growth, Mason was blunt. “We still have the characteristics of a stereotypical blue-collar town,” he wrote.
That will change only when the state Legislature “stops following the creed that ‘we are cheap and proud of it!’” he wrote.
Mason said Florida ranks “dead last” in the 50 states for education funding.
“I place little blame for the weak conditions regionally on local economic development efforts or local government efforts, but considerable blame belongs with the state Legislature that fails to raise sufficient tax revenue and misallocates what little they raise to housing prisoners instead of preventing them from turning to crime, funds for the elderly who failed to plan effectively for their needs and retirement and bureaucracy at all levels that stifles economic growth,” wrote Mason.
To return people to work in Northeast Florida, Mason said the private sector needs to regain confidence and aim for innovative techniques that improve productivity.
He said consumers also need to boost their confidence.
Despite the challenges, Mason concluded with a statement that drew chuckles.
“There has never been a recession that hasn’t been followed by a recovery,” he said.
The question-and-answer period drew a wide range of questions, including a suggestion that schools consider assessing students in middle school and guide them into technical or college tracks rather than urging all students toward college.
The group meets Jan. 12 to explore “job growth in theory and practice.” The study participants will meet each Wednesday through March 9 to hear speakers.
Starting March 16, the group will focus on committee work and conclude the study May 4.
Study chair Elaine Brown, president of the Northeast Florida Regional Council, said she hoped that participants remained active in the study to determine “how we can indeed turn this economy around.”