Employment outlook good in Panhandle, South Alabama communities

Dr. Rick Harper serves as senior research fellow with the Studer Community Institute, a Pensacola-based organization that seeks citizen-powered solutions to challenges the community faces.

Pensacola has had strong job growth over the last couple of years, but this should be no surprise. Like most cities in Florida, Pensacola was hard hit by the housing slowdown that was at the heart of the Great Recession. Simply getting back to the pre-recession jobs peak will require another year.

2014 was particularly good. This month released their 2015 index of job growth for all of the metro areas in the nation. It is particularly interesting because they use the brand new March 2015 Office of Management and Budget definitions of metropolitan statistical areas to identify the 421 areas that they compare.

The new OMB release gives the nation 23 new metro areas. With The Villages, Sebring and Homosassa Springs, Florida has three of those 23 new metros. Locally, the new Daphne-Fairhope-Foley metro area, which includes all of Baldwin County, Alabama sits between the older Pensacola and Mobile metros and has 66,800 jobs.

While the Newgeography calculations use data going back to 2003, more recent years are weighted more heavily, so that 2014 is the single most important year in determining index values. The good news locally is that Pensacola ranked 116 out of those 421 metros in the “2015 best cities for job growth” index.

Even more importantly, only 14 of the 421 metros experienced a greater rise in the rankings relative to last year’s index. Pensacola moved up 114 spots. This is due to the good job creation enjoyed in our metro last year and the heavy weight the index gives to the 2014 job numbers.

Looking at neighboring metros on this same index, the new Daphne-Fairhope-Foley metro area ranked highest, coming in 66th, Fort Walton Beach and Panama City ranked 163rd and 169th, respectively. Tallahassee ranked 221st, while Montgomery, Mobile and Gulfport-Biloxi-Pascagoula ranked 350th, 379th and 394th respectively.

Some of the strongest growth for Pensacola came in leisure and hospitality occupations. There, the December 2013 to December 2014 jobs count rose by 1,300, accounting for 28 percent of total job growth in the metro. In the last several years, leisure and hospitality has seen more job growth than any of the other nine major sectors that make up the total economy. The related sectors of wholesale and retail trade, and finance, insurance and real estate have also been strong performers.

It is clear that visitors value our beautiful beaches and, increasingly, our vibrant yet historical downtown. Retirees might add that they value the mild winter climate and our concentration of health care providers. These trends, while they may moderate somewhat, appear likely to continue, as visitors and new residents choose our area.

With this growth comes economic opportunity for new and existing businesses. The same labor force that provides services to these growing businesses will look for the opportunities to gain skills and get ahead, for themselves and their families. Businesses will look for the talent they need to be able to locate to, or stay in, a growing economy with great amenities. To the extent that we can provide good educational alternatives, safe streets and a business-friendly environment while maintaining quality of life, our community will continue to grow and improve.

Dr. Rick Harper serves as senior research fellow with the Studer Community Institute, a Pensacola, Florida-based organization that seeks citizen-powered solutions to challenges the community faces. He also directs the University of West Florida’s Office of Economic Development and Engagement in Pensacola.