South Florida Restaurants Stay Hungry for Workers

 South Florida saw unemployment drop last month and payrolls grow. But the gains don’t compare to the streak in the restaurant industry.

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At Juvia, South Beach’s celebrated new rooftop restaurant, the butter-poached crab appetizer sells for almost $40. Chocolate eel sauce graces the menu, as does apple soup. But for all the exotic dishes and rave reviews, executive chef Sunny Oh still pines for at least one crucial ingredient each day: a full payroll.

“It’s been difficult to find quality people,’’ said Oh, a veteran of South Beach’s dining scene after a decade at the Shore Club’s Nobu Miami. “The good restaurants in Miami are always looking for people. Always — even during the recession.”
South Florida restaurants stay hungry for workers

South Florida saw unemployment drop last month and payrolls grow. But the gains don’t compare to the streak in the restaurant industry.

Friday brought a fairly positive jobs report for South Florida, with unemployment rates dropping and payrolls expanding in many sectors in March. But even with numbers improving, almost no major industry can boast of the kind of hiring streak under way in Miami-Dade restaurants: 28 straight months of job growth.

The industry last saw job losses in November 2009, during the depths of the global financial crisis. Since then, about 10,000 restaurants jobs have been added, putting the dining industry on a faster recovery pace than the labor market as a whole. The latest numbers have restaurant jobs growing at 6 percent, while overall Miami-Dade payrolls were up just over 2 percent in the latest local jobs report released Friday.

Restaurants’ standout performance isn’t the kind of good news economists like to tout in a healthy recovery. Despite improving unemployment levels and hiring rates, analysts see growth in low-paying service jobs masking trouble in better-paying sectors, including construction, manufacturing and white-collar professions like banking, accounting and law.

“I’m definitely concerned,’’ said Chris Lafakis, a Moody’s economist, who gave a “tepid thumbs up” to South Florida’s latest employment report. “The headline number looks good, but it’s discouraging not to see any growth in goods-producing industries.”

Broward actually saw its manufacturing industry begin to create jobs in 2012, with almost 3,000 new manufacturing positions added in March over the prior year. The four-month stretch of employment gains is the best for Broward manufacturing since the early 1990s.

But construction — a much bigger part of South Florida’s economy — continues its slide in both counties. Broward saw a loss of 2,800 jobs and Miami-Dade 2,000. The March numbers mean South Florida’s construction industry has been shedding jobs for four years and seven months. Employment is at about half what it was during the housing boom, amounting to a loss of about 62,000 construction jobs.

Gains in hospitality, healthcare and retail continued to drive the hiring recovery in March. Compared to a year ago, employers in Broward added 5,500 positions. In Miami-Dade, there were 23,400 new jobs.

Unemployment rates also showed progress. In Broward, the raw unemployment rate dropped from 7.9 percent to 7.5 percent, the lowest since December 2008. Miami-Dade’s seasonally adjusted rate showed unemployment at 10 percent in March, down from 10.3 percent in February. That’s the lowest since the summer of 2009. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics will provide a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for Broward and Florida’s other medium-sized counties later this month.

Florida saw the sharpest drop in its unemployment rate since the early 1990s, from 9.4 percent in February to 9 percent in March. The state added almost 11,000 jobs in March, about half of February’s gain.

Despite improving numbers, South Florida remains a rough place for job seekers. About 190,000 people are listed as unemployed in both counties. On Friday a pharmaceutical facility in Miami, PL Developments, disclosed mass layoffs, with 82 workers losing their jobs in June, according to state documents.

Improving unemployment rates are seen as feeding consumer confidence, which has been a boon to the dining and retail industries in recent years. A rebound in consumer spending helped bolster restaurant receipts shortly after the financial crisis ebbed in 2010. In July 2010, a tax Miami-Dade charges most mainland restaurants returned to record levels, after dropping 4 percent in 2008.

“Tourism has helped,’’ Robert Cruz, Miami-Dade’s economist, said of growing restaurant jobs. “But consumers are spending again. That’s why they’re more willing to go out to dinner.”

Broward’s restaurant industry isn’t large enough to get its own category in monthly job reports, but its hospitality sector accounted for 22 percent of the new jobs in March, behind retail and healthcare. In Miami-Dade, the restaurant industry’s two-plus years of hiring is second only to healthcare’s stunning record of flat or growing payrolls since June 2000.

Pastry chef Mayde Montesano found herself jobless in November when her employer at the time, Miami Beach’s Kane Steakhouse, abruptly closed. On Friday, Monstesano was back at work at Juvia, where she spent part of the morning preparing a stylized Snickers bar that includes coconut-lime ice cream

“I love it so far,’’ the 49-year-old said during a break. She talked to six restaurants before settling on Juvia for her next job. Though pastry-chef slots were hard to find, Montesano said openings were plentiful in kitchens throughout South Beach “There were a lot for line cooks,’’ she said.

Juan Carlos Barrera, owner of downtown’s La Moon, said business has been brisk in recent years at the Colombian hot dog restaurant. Job applications? Not so much.

“This last year has been really hard to find workers,’’ he said. “Kitchen, management, deliveries, waitresses, hostessing — everything.”


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