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A new study says Charlotte County is among the worst places in the country if you’re a recent college graduate looking for a job.

The Punta Gorda metropolitan statistical area — which includes all of Charlotte County — ranked 31st on the 32-city list compiled by financial news website 24/7 Wall St.

The study centered around three factors: job growth for young workers, wages for young workers, and the concentration of jobs in fields that typically require a college education. It also included the percentage of people with incomes below the poverty line. The numbers are drawn from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Quarterly Workforce Indicators.

Here are Charlotte’s numbers:

• Professional and administrative employment: 7.1% of total employment (lowest 10%)

• Average monthly wage, 22-24 year olds: $2,054

• Poverty: 10.1% (lowest 20%)

• June 2019 unemployment: 4.0%

• Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 23.6%

For comparison, here’s East Stroudsberg, Pennsylvania, the city that topped the list as worst in the nation:

• Professional and administrative employment: 6.5% of total employment (lowest 10%)

• Average monthly wage, 22-24 year olds: $1,816 (lowest 10%)

• Poverty: 7.3% (lowest 10%)

• June 2019 unemployment: 4.9% (highest 20%)

• Adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 24.1%

Why do we rank so low?

Charlotte/Punta Gorda usually ranks high on lists of the best places for retirees. And this is a big part of why their grandkids, diploma in hand, would have trouble finding work here.

The Charlotte MSA has the second-highest median age in the country, with people age 65 and over making up 40.2% of the local population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

With such a large retiree population, “that’s going to limit the economy to the kinds of things retirees demand,” said Christopher Westley, interim dean of the Florida Gulf Coast University Lutgert College of Business and director of FGCU’s Regional Economic Research Institute.

In the institute’s quarterly economic diversification reports for the region, Westley added, Charlotte “is almost always in last place.”

And not just regionally. The most recent report in June showed Charlotte was last among all 22 MSAs in Florida.

“It’s not a very diversified economy,” Westley said. “When young people graduate, they’ll end up leaving. They’ll go where the capital is going. People want jobs, and they’re just not there.”

Where are our jobs?

Charlotte’s employers largely cater to the elderly, with the retail trade, health care and social assistance, and accommodation and food service industries accounting for 60% of total employment in the fourth quarter of 2018, according to the June economic diversity report.

Data supplied by CareerSource Southwest Florida showed the highest short-term demand in Southwest Florida — Charlotte, Collier, Glades, Hendry and Lee counties — this month is for retail positions, both salespersons and supervisors. The highest-demand position requiring a bachelor’s degree, much further down the list, is for securities, commodities and financial services sales agents, followed by medical and health services managers.

“There is not much large-scale manufacturing in the Punta Gorda MSA, as well as other large businesses that offer opportunities including a higher wage/pay range for new graduates,” said Hans Dettling, employment security representative of CareerSource Southwest Florida. “You can find positions, but they are not as plentiful as in other areas like Fort Myers/Lee County or Sarasota.”

What can fix it?

“We have a lot of retirees,” said Dave Gammon, Charlotte’s economic development director. “That’s Charlotte County’s history, and it’s going to be our future too.”

Gammon thought the 24/7 Wall Street study was too narrow in scope. Young people, he said, may want to live here for reasons that don’t necessarily involve a big paycheck.

“Studies like this don’t take into account our low cost of living,” he said. “It’s very inexpensive to live in Charlotte County. We’re still a very affordable community, even if they are making $24,000. And it’s a beautiful place to live.”

But, Gammon stressed, Charlotte is steadily attracting more private sector interest, citing a boom in aviation, as well as a boat manufacturer, food distributor Cheney Brothers and, biggest of all, Sunseeker Resort.

“Sunseeker could have gone anywhere in the country, and they chose to come here to Charlotte County,” Gammon said. “They know there are opportunities here, and we’re attracting private sector dollars.”

He summed up Charlotte’s economic development efforts: “It’s a slow grind, but we’re moving along.”

FGCU’s Westley also thinks Sunseeker can help Charlotte diversify by becoming “somewhat more tourist-oriented.”

“I’m very bullish on Charlotte County,” he added. “It reminds me of how Naples was in the ’70s. There’s a lot of room to grow.”

Email: garry.overbey@yoursun.com

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