By, Clayton Park, The Daytona Beach News-Journal
DAYTONA BEACH — Ally Murdock felt confident about her employment prospects when she graduated in mid-May from Georgia Southeastern State University, even though she hadn't actually started applying for jobs.
Murdock who grew up in Volusia County quickly landed a full-time position at Security First Insurance in Ormond Beach, where she began as a business development relationship coordinator on June 6. It helped, she said, that she interned with the company the previous two summers.
"It made that so much easier, a lot less stressful, knowing that I had this opportunity," she said.
Local employment numbers back to pre-COVID levels
In April, Volusia County had 1,643 more employed workers than it did in March and 12,719 more than it had a year ago, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. The increased hiring has lowered Volusia County's unemployment rate to 2.5%, down from its COVID-19 pandemic peak of 14.2% in April 2020. Just two months earlier, prior to the pandemic's onset locally, unemployment stood at a near record-low 2.5% for the county.
In neighboring Flagler County to the north, the number of employed workers in April increased by 296 compared with March, and was up 2,380 year-over-year. Flagler County's unemployment rate in April fell to 2.6%, down from its pandemic peak of 14.2% recorded exactly two years earlier.
In St. Johns County, Flagler's immediate neighbor to the north, the number of employed workers in April rose by 621 compared with March and was up 8,937 compared with a year ago. The jobless rate in the St. Augustine/St. Johns County area improved to 1.7% in April, second-lowest in the state behind only Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, where the unemployment rate now stands at 1.5%.
Unemployment in St. Johns County peaked at an all-time high of 10.4% in April 2020, when much of the Florida economy was in lockdown mode because of the pandemic.
Statewide, the unemployment rate for Florida improved to 3.0% in April, down from 5.1% a year ago. Unemployment peaked during the early months of the pandemic at 13.9% in May 2020, up from 2.7% just three months earlier.
The state-mandated shutdowns aimed at slowing the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in March and April 2020 resulted in the sudden layoffs and/or temporary furloughs of tens of thousands of workers in Volusia, Flagler, and St. Johns counties.
As of this April, the number of unemployed workers was down to 6,562 in Volusia County, 2,525 in St. Johns County, and just 1,278 in the much smaller Flagler County.
"If you look at the employment numbers today versus the employment numbers pre-COVID, we're actually higher today than we were," Volusia County Economic Development Director Helga van Eckert told a cheering gathering of area business people and elected officials at Daytona Beach International Airport on May 23.
Greg Blose, president, and CEO of the Palm Coast-Flagler Regional Chamber of Commerce noted in a news release that "Flagler County finally has more jobs today than February 2020 (the last month before the pandemic-driven lockdowns began in Florida). This means Flagler has recovered the jobs lost due to the global pandemic."
Blose added, "Now that we're finally 'even,' the (Palm Coast-Flagler Regional) Chamber is doubling down on helping employers grow jobs and strengthen their business."
See why so many choose to work at Security First Insurance Company. Learn more about us and view our opportunities.
'Great Resignation' or 'Great Reflection'?
Today, the chief impediment to the local economy, in addition to rising inflation, is the national labor shortage that is making it more challenging than ever for Volusia-Flagler area employers to fill jobs.
John and Rene Dame, the franchise owners of the Ritter's Frozen Yogurt shop on Clyde Morris Boulevard in Port Orange, put up a sandwich board sign asking customers to be understanding about longer-than-usual wait times for service.
"Due to a national labor shortage our service times are going to be affected," the sign states.
"We decided to post the sign because sometimes our service time is slower than we'd like, but we're not going to sacrifice quality or cleanliness," said John Dame in a phone interview on Monday.
Dame said he and his wife have managed to add a few more workers in recent weeks, but said the labor shortage remains a concern. "Since school's been out, we've filled three positions, but we're still looking for more workers over 18 who can work when school starts again," he said.
The national labor shortage began last year as the economy roared back to life from the government-mandated lockdowns because of the pandemic. Some economists have dubbed it the "Great Resignation."
Christine Sikora, vice president of innovative solutions at CareerSource Flagler-Volusia, believes the "Great Reflection" would be a more accurate way of describing the labor shortage.
"People aren't quitting to collect unemployment," said Sikora, referring to an accusation voiced by a number of local business owners in terms of what has been causing the labor shortage.
Sikora said the pandemic has caused a number of workers to reassess their career goals.
"They're leaving for jobs that better suit them, whether it's pay, more flexible hours, whether the company is willing to invest in training them or whether the company's culture better reflects their values," she said.
Sikora said some employers are "getting the message" that they need to do more, not only to recruit new workers but to retain those they already employ to keep them from leaving for better opportunities elsewhere.
"You have to meet the needs of your business, but you also have to meet the needs of your employees," she said.
Sikora said the national labor shortage could continue "for a minimum of five years" as Baby Boomers — those born from 1946 to 1964 — continue to retire from the workforce.
Security First has increased its workforce by more than 50 people in the past year. As of early June, it employed approximately 470 workers, its most ever, up 51 in the past year.
Even so, the company still has more positions it is looking to fill. The increased competition for available workers has prompted Security First as well as a number of other businesses locally to increase starting wages.
"We're now offering $35,000 starting pay, which works out to $16.82 an hour, plus full benefits on Day 1 for entry-level positions with no experience required," said DeVriese.
The average annual wage for workers improved in 2020 to $44,395 in Volusia County and $38,529 in Flagler County, according to Florida Department of Economic Opportunity data released in December. In St. Johns County, the average annual wage improved to $48,988 in 2020.
All three counties, however, remain well below the statewide average annual wage of $55,840.
"We still have a ways to go in terms of wages," said van Eckert.
Looking for 'growth opportunities'
Wages weren't the only consideration for Murdock, one of the new hires at Security First.
"In the (physical) rehab (field), where I specifically wanted to be, there was just not a lot of opportunity that would provide growth," said Murdock, the recent college graduate from DeBary whose degree is in exercise science. "You don't want to go into the work force knowing you're going to be stuck."
The opportunity for career advancement was a big reason why Murdock decided to go to work for Security First, she said.
"You want to know that you're always going to grow and get better and learn more and just be better for your company and for yourself," she said.
Latest unemployment rates at a glance
April 2022: 2.5%
April 2021: 4.9%
Pandemic peak: 14.2% (April 2020)
Rate before pandemic: 3.0% (February 2020)
April 2022: 2.6%
April 2021: 4.9%
Pandemic peak: 14.2% (April 2020)
Rate before pandemic: 3.2% (February 2020)
ST. JOHNS COUNTY
April 2022: 1.7%
April 2021: 3.1%
Pandemic peak: 10.4% (April 2020)
Rate before pandemic: 2.2% (February 2020)
April 2022: 3.0%
April 2021: 5.1%
Pandemic peak: 13.9% (May 2020)
Rate before pandemic: 2.7% (February 2020)
Sources: Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED)