Image: Lakeland-Winter Haven, Fla.
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In Lakeland-Winter Haven, Fla., employment has gotten a big boost from Legoland Florida, the theme park employing 1,100 people. The are also has several other job engines.
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updated 12/26/2011 12:41:29 PM ET 2011-12-26T17:41:29

Though Florida was hard hit by the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, and unemployment in the state sits 1.5 percent above the national average at 10.1 percent, in the first quarter of 2012, employers in two of Florida’s metropolitan areas are planning to increase their workforces at a rate that outpaces every other metro area in the country, according to employment services firm Manpower Group’s latest employment outlook survey, released earlier this month. In Cape Coral-Fort Myers, and in Lakeland-Winter Haven, a net 17 percent of employers plan to add employees in the first quarter of next year. Two other Florida metro areas, Bradenton-Sarasota-Venice and Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, make it into Manpower’s top 15, both with a 12 percent net hiring outlook.

To gauge companies’ plans going forward, Manpower surveyed 18,000 employers in 100 metro areas. Manpower used a research firm that questioned hiring managers and human resource professionals by phone and email. Over the first two weeks in October, the firm asked four questions about companies’ plans for the first quarter of 2012: do you plan to add to your staff, do you plan to reduce your staff, keep your staff at the same level, or are you unsure. Then Manpower crunched the numbers and came up with a “net employment outlook.” The Manpower survey is by definition a rough measure, since it doesn’t count the number of jobs employers plan to add or subtract, but simply asks whether they plan to hire or fire.

Forbes.com slideshow: Where the jobs will (and won’t) be in 2012

In Lakeland-Winter Haven, employment has gotten a big boost from Legoland Florida, the 150-acre theme park that opened in mid-October and employs 1,100 people, according to Bob Gernert, head of the Winter Haven chamber of commerce. The city has several other job engines. One is a downtown technology hub housed in hurricane-resistant buildings that contain servers and fiber optic cables and a business accelerator that supports start-up technology ventures. Gernert estimates the hub has created 350 jobs. One more job creator: construction of a new rail freight logistics center planned for Winter Haven. The project is slated to start next year and will hire some 600 construction workers, according to Gernert.

Nearby Lakeland is home to several corporate headquarters that have been in hiring mode, including Publix Supermarkets, which has 2,600 employees, a regional office of car insurer Geico, which employs 1,900, and WellDyne RX, a pharmaceutical company that moved to Lakeland two years ago and plans to hire a total of more than 600 workers.

Des Moines, Iowa comes in third on the list of metro areas with the best hiring outlook, with a net increase of 14 percent. Houston, Texas and Phoenix, Az. also have a net hiring outlook of 14 percent.

Forbes.com: America’s worst cities for finding a job

At the other end of the spectrum, Spokane, Wash., Fresno, Calif. and Dayton, Ohio, all have negative hiring outlooks of -4 percent. In Spokane, for instance, 12 percent of employers say they plan to increase hiring, but 16 percent project they will be cutting staff early next year.

Nationwide, Manpower calculates net hiring growth at 9 percent, up from 7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 and a tiny bit better than a year ago, when the outlook was 8 percent. Melanie Holmes, a vice president at Manpower Group, says, “the growth is not as robust as we’d like to see it.” Adds Holmes, “we’ve had a positive outlook for nine straight quarters, but these numbers are pretty small. They’re not where we need to be to get us out of this unemployment hole we’re in.”

Manpower has been running its quarterly employment outlook survey since 1962. During prosperous times, the nationwide number has been in the double digits, hitting 20 percent in 2000, the last year the national unemployment rate dipped below 4 percent.

For Holmes, another telling number in the Q1 2012 survey is the percentage, of employers, 7 percent, who said they were unsure about hiring plans, up from just 3 percent last quarter. “That’s the most significant increase we’ve seen since 1977, and the highest percentage since 2005,” says Holmes. “There continues to be uncertainty about the marketplace so employers are reluctant to make the investment in a permanent hire.”

Forbes.com: Who’s getting hired right now
Forbes.com: America’s most promising companies  
Forbes.com: The best states for jobs
Forbes.com: Where the 1 percent live

© 2012 Forbes.com

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