A new survey of almost 200 companies in Central Florida suggests the region's labor market is slowly healing, although hiring in the new year is not expected to be dramatically better than it was in 2012.
The vast majority of companies say they will do some hiring this year, with about 57 percent of survey respondents saying they'll hire more than 20 people. In 2012, just 49 percent of companies fell into that category.
The survey, by OrlandoJobs.com, found more than 8,600 jobs now available, with another 19,000 projected to be open over the next three quarters.
Many jobs will again come from the hospitality industry, which already accounts for about 20 percent of Central Florida's workforce. The sector has rebounded from the recession and now employs more than 216,000 people, an all-time high, according to OrlandoJobs.com co-founder and President Roger Lear.
Lear said one message was repeated by executives in every industry: It is still an employers' market, and companies are being extremely picky about who they hire.
"Over and over again, we heard that businesses are looking for candidates with the specific skills and experience the company needs," Lear said. "If you don't have those skills, you won't get the job. You'll be wasting your time."
The study collected responses from 198 Central Florida companies that employ almost 235,000 people. The employers come from 20 sectors, including hospitality, engineering, banking, government, health care, education and construction.
Of the region's overall outlook, Lear said the survey "backs up those who are starting to use the word 'recovery' to describe the market."
During the boom, job applicants faced better odds. With far fewer people out of work, employers were more willing to hire and train candidates who displayed promise but who may have lacked specific skills or experience.
Now managers have the luxury of hiring only those applicants who can show up on Day One ready to go. This is especially true of higher-paying jobs typically targeted by mid-career professionals.
Sandi Vidal, executive director of Christian Help, a Casselberry nonprofit that helps people find work, said some larger companies now administer pre-screening questionnaires to filter out candidates who don't already have the skills they want.
"Entry-level jobs and hospitality seem to be a little more flexible," Vidal said, "but ... I am seeing that companies want qualified applicants and still in most cases have enough people to choose from."
For candidates with skills in demand, companies are hiring, Lear said. Physical therapists, nurses, pharmacists, project management specialists, technical support personnel and certain computer programmers can generally find work -- but only if they network.
Lear said there are so many people looking for work, businesses do not have to search as extensively. Instead, they rely on current employees for referrals or simply post openings on their company's website.
One area Lear and others are monitoring is the business and professional services sector. These tend to be white-collar jobs that offer decent pay and benefits, and often do not require highly specialized or technical skills.
Before the recession, the sector employed about 181,000 people, just 7,300 fewer than the hospitality industry. Today, it employs about 166,000 and trails hospitality by 50,000 jobs.
The contraction of that sector is one reason Central Florida's under-employment rate is about 15 percent.
Unlike the unemployment rate, which was 7.6 percent in Metro Orlando at the end of last year, the under-employment rate captures people who have been forced into part-time jobs or abandoned their job search but who looked for work at some point in the past year.
Lear said he'll feel better when business and professional services begins to grow by absorbing those workers.
"That's a critical number to watch," Lear said. "Those jobs are still lacking, and until they pick up, you'll see people under-employed."
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