Region poised to create jobs, study concludes

The Sarasota-Manatee economy is better positioned to create jobs in the coming years than three-quarters of the 100 biggest U.S. metropolitan areas, a new study concludes.

But the region’s recovery will essentially return Southwest Florida to an economy reliant on retirees, construction and tourism, the new Brookings Institution analysis predicts.

It is a prognosis that, while welcome in the broadest sense, does not meet the goals of economic development groups, who have sought to diversify the region away from those boom-and-bust sectors.

At least one of those economic pillars — tourism — already has rebounded strongly, setting records for both hotel occupancy and visitor spending in 2012, and prompting some officials already to fear complacency could set in.

“Just because the restaurants and hotels have hired doesn’t mean we’ve solved our real fundamental economic development issues,” said Mark Huey, chief executive of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County.

Bright spots for the area’s future largely revolve around health care and manufacturing, sectors whose needs both local employers and educators say they are working to meet. Housing also could fuel further recovery when it returns to full strength, the Brookings study found.

Jonathan Rothwell, who wrote the study, found that some markets, such as Tampa’s, suffer from an education gap, meaning the average job opening in the Tampa area calls for more education than the average resident has.

Rothwell found the opposite was true in Sarasota and Manatee, where workers were generally overqualified for many available jobs — though more employers are demanding college or other advanced degrees in hiring.

But the Brookings’ study also contained some ominous details that could have long-ranging repercussions for the region. Most notably, the Sarasota-Manatee economy has the second-highest unemployment rate for college graduates among the 100 metro areas studied.

Experts say the area’s best shot at a significant job expansion is in health care, which dramatically outpaced hiring statewide throughout the Great Recession. It is an industry that maintained a top spot among growing sectors, the result of aging populations and technological improvements.

Brookings noted the largest number of job openings by far in Sarasota and Manatee counties are for “Health Diagnosing and Treating Practitioners.”

In January and February, there were 2,645 online job ads for those kind of workers, more than three times the next most in-demand job, which was retail sales.

“In health care, I do believe we are in a good position to create jobs,” said Mireya Eavey, whose Bradenton-based CareerEdge group seeks to bring together employers, schools and workers. “In health care, the educational institutions are listening and working with the health care employers to put the needed programs in place to meet the demands of the employers.”

Eavey also sees the same kind of meeting of the minds in manufacturing. CareerEdge is preparing to publish its own survey about the education gap in that field, based on interviews with 125 employers.

A stronger recovery?

Rothwell, the study author, points to two findings that tell him the Sarasota-Manatee economy is positioned to recover at a faster pace than most other U.S. cities.

Referring to the region by its official U.S. Census name — North Port-Bradenton-Sarasota — Rothwell notes that the local metro has a high concentration of jobs in industries that are growing the fastest.

“There are some industries prevalent in North Port that have been doing well the last few years — health, ambulatory services and residential care facilities,” he said.

Rothwell’s study ranks the local economy 23rd when it comes to its prospects for job growth during the economic recovery, which officially began in late 2009.

He also points out that the area suffered the sixth biggest drop in home prices out of the 100 U.S. cities studied.

That loss in home value and associated wealth, together with consumer purchasing power, represents one of the major reasons Southwest Florida saw a much bigger spike in unemployment than the rest of the country.

Rothwell said a sustained recovery in home prices will go a long way toward restoring jobs in the region.

Roughly one in seven jobs regionally is tied to residential real estate, according to economic development officials’ data.

The Brookings study also found that the Sarasota and Manatee economy has a high unemployment rate — 16.6 percent — among those with a high school degree or less education, the 13th highest rate among the 100 cities in the study.

That explains why, in part, the focus of Southwest Florida’s recovery has seemingly been on reversing high unemployment rates among those who are less educated.

But at 7.6 percent, Sarasota-Manatee has the second highest unemployment rate for college graduates in the study. Only Stockton, Calif., which has one of the highest overall unemployment rates in the country, is higher.

Overall, the region’s unemployment stood at 9.3 percent in July, the most recent data available, after falling to 8.4 percent in May.

Looking for workers with college degree

Though the two-county economy has one of the lowest levels of demand nationally for workers with college degrees, that percentage has been climbing.

This year, just 33 percent of the job openings required a worker with a bachelor’s degree or higher, six percentage points below the average for the 100 largest U.S. cities.

Still, demand for college graduates was higher in Sarasota and Manatee than it was in 2010, when only 25 percent of job postings required a degree, the Brookings report stated.

“I think, in part, the economy is playing a role, in that businesses have more applicants than they can handle,” said Sally Hill, a spokeswoman for the Suncoast Workforce Board, a non-profit that runs three employment centers in the region.

“Due to that, they are being more selective in who they hire,” Hill said. “And in some cases the employers are requiring a degree in positions where maybe two, three years ago they didn’t have that requirement.”

Employers, too, often look for specific combinations of credentials and experience in hiring, while Brookings’ study was limited to number of collegiate hours.

“I’m in the middle of a search right now for Intertape, and the final two candidates are both from outside this area,” said Charlie Fridley, president of Beneva Group of Sarasota, a recruiter specializing in manufacturing.

“There are not people in this area who have the previous experience, and the educational level, to fill that role,” Fridley said.

“Clients are just getting very specific about what they are looking for,” said Jamie Conley, regional vice president at Robert Half International, who is in charge of recruiting from Marco Island through Tampa and east to Lakeland.

“They are looking for degrees, they are looking for licenses, and those people are hard to find,” Conley said. “They are looking for pedigrees as well — where did you get your bachelor’s, your master’s degree.”