The city of Lakeland is tied with Winter Haven for increased hiring and job growth nationally, a new Manpower survey indicates. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

LAKELAND — In past years, Kathleen L. Munson admits, it’s been a bit of a struggle for economic forecasters to find positive news to predict in the coming year.
Florida, very hard hit by the subprime mortgage crisis and the collapse in the housing market, got saddled with an unemployment rate above the national average.
But when the Lakeland area Chamber of Commerce hosts its annual Economic Forecast Breakfast on Thursday, Jan. 12 at Sikes Hall in The Lakeland Center, the predictions for 2012 are expected to be considerably more upbeat, noted Munson, the president of the chamber.
“We’re seeing a positive uptick in our local economic environment, and with the lower unemployment rate, I think 2012 will be a much more optimistic economic outlook,” she said.
Part of that optimism comes from a new business employment outlook survey from Manpower Group, showing that Lakeland and Winter Haven tied for the top spot in projected job growth nationally in the first quarter of 2012, an impressive turnaround considering that Polk County’s unemployment rate has been at 12 percent, well above the national average of 8.6 percent in November.
Manpower’s quarterly survey is an indicator of hiring activity for the next quarter, with a forecast based on responses from more than 65,000 employers in 41 countries. According to Manpower’s projections, 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 nation.
Overall, Florida appears to be headed for a much better 2012, since the survey showed that in the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area, and in Lakeland-Winter Haven, 17 percent of employers plan to add workers in the first quarter of next year, while two other Florida metro areas — Bradenton-Sarasota and Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater — also made it into Manpower’s top 15 rankings, both with a 12 percent net hiring outlook.
The Manpower survey has been in operation for nearly 50 years, and is considered one of the most trusted and reliable surveys of employment activity in the world.
And after several years of pretty rough economic news, it was exactly what Munson wanted to read as the Chamber prepares for its program on Jan. 12.
“We see that as very encouraging news, and give a lot of the credit for that potential job growth to Legoland,” Munson said. “Their workforce is now over 1,000, and that’s a huge shot in the arm to the Lakeland and Winter Haven and Polk County area.”
Legoland Florida, a new theme park modeled after the ones in Europe and California, opened last October at the site of the former Cypress Gardens theme park in Winter Haven.

The opening of Legoland Florida in Winter Haven last October appears to be giving Polk County a major economic boost. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

“It’s a tremendous asset to our county and our region to have such a successful corporate citizen transform Cypress Gardens, which had been one of the jewels in Polk Country’s crown for years,” Munson said. “Now Legoland has transformed it into a world-renowned attraction that will bring prosperity and growth here.”
The Manpower report follows some very upbeat announcements in the Lakeland area, noted Steve Scruggs, executive director of the Lakeland Economic Development Council
“Manpower surveys businesses all over the country, and Lakeland showed more companies in our area than anywhere around the country were looking to hire,” Scruggs said. “We certainly have had a lot of encouraging news lately, with the Legoland project hiring people, and Rooms to Go and Publix both doing major expansions in our area right now, building huge workhouses, and Home Depot Supply is expanding in our market as well. In the last quarter of the year a lot of good announcements were made, and I would assume the Manpower survey talked to those companies.”
With so much positive economic news to report, he said, “It would make sense to me that the job outlook looks good. It is just a survey, and we don’t put our hope and faith in that, but it certainly is good news.”
Munson agreed, saying Lakeland’s business environment is stabilizing and improving after several years of struggle.
“Of course, we’ve got great entities here as well, like Publix Supermarkets Inc., the largest private company in the state of Florida, and we’ve had several corporations relocate here in the last couple of years,” she said. “That has stimulated us as well.”
The economic Forecast breakfast is a collaboration between the Lakeland area Chamber of Commerce and Allen & Company of Florida. This long-standing partnership has brought a long list of speakers to Lakeland in the past 25 years to discuss the future of the local and state economy. Next month, the speakers will be Brian Wesbury of First Trust Advisors, LP and Tony Villamil of The Washington Economics Group, Inc.
The breakfast begins at 7 a.m. with the program starting promptly at 7:30. Tickets are $25 each.

“We are going to be hosting it with Allen & Company, and we’ve partnered with them for several years and they bring in top notch economists to look at the forecast for the state,” Munson said. “We sell out every year. It really does bring some really good forecasting information to our local business community, and is an excellent opportunity to come hear from the experts and then plan your own business development in 2012.”
To learn more about the breakfast, call the chamber at 863-688-8551.

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