By BRENT KALLESTADTALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) â¿¿ State labor officials said Friday that Florida's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dipped to 8 percent in December, ticking down from 8.1 percent the previous month. The state's unemployment rate now stands at its lowest level since November 2008, when it was 7.8 percent, though 749,000 workers remain jobless. The latest 8 percent figure also is an improvement from a year earlier â¿¿ the December 2011 rate was 9.9 percent. The leisure and hospitality industry has enjoyed the biggest increase in jobs, with 29,900 new positions over the past 12 months, a gain of 3.1 percent. The growth has led to ancillary improvements in the trade, transportation and utilities arenas, according to Friday's monthly report from the Department of Economic Opportunity. Gov. Rick Scott, who has staked his re-election chances on creating jobs, said the figures show the state is headed in the right direction. "Trends show that we are also experiencing growth in many different economic indicators that are key to job creation," Scott said in a statement from his office Friday. "Housing starts are on the rise, businesses and families continue to move to Florida, and more jobs are being created. " Scott, who campaigned in 2010 on a promise to create some 700,000 jobs over a seven-year period, noted that unemployment has dropped 3.1 percentage points since he took office two years ago. But Florida's unemployment rate still lags behind the national average of 7.8 percent in December. And while the unemployment rate declined in December, the state also lost 15,300 nonagricultural jobs, said Rebecca Rust, chief economist for the labor agency. Overall, Florida gained 54,900 nonagricultural jobs during 2012. Florida's southernmost county, Monroe, enjoyed the strongest job environment again in December with 4.5 percent unemployment. Walton and Okaloosa in the state's western Panhandle were the only other counties with unemployment below 6 percent. Many of the counties with low unemployment are homes to high proportions of government jobs.
Only three counties reported double-digit unemployment in December. Flagler, in northeast Florida, reported the highest figure â¿¿ 11.2 percent.The metropolitan Tampa Bay and Orlando areas each reported gains in new jobs over the past year, totaling nearly 40,000 positions. The metropolitan Jacksonville area reported a gain of 5,000 jobs from December 2011 to December 2012. Improving home sales, rising home values and a resilient stock market have buoyed improving consumer confidence to near a five-year high in Florida, according to University of Florida researchers.