SANDESTIN — Although the risk that the country is sliding into recession remains relatively low, the economic picture Rick Harper painted for Northwest Florida on Wednesday wasn’t super rosy.

Job growth in Florida has slowed, Harper said, and in what he termed a “winner-take-all marketplace,” the middle class is finding itself left behind.

“We haven’t seen any wage increases for the people who get up and go to work every day,” he said. “That’s a problem.”

The declining growth of take-home benefits is hurting the workforce, Harper said, and many jobs in the hospitality industry, upon which much of Northwest Florida relies, “don’t pay enough to allow a family to have a living wage.”

Harper, who has retired from the University of West Florida after nearly three decades and serves as the economic adviser for Triumph Gulf Coast, was one of three economists who spoke Wednesday at the first day of the Gulf Power Economic Symposium.

This year the symposium, the first for Gulf Power since it was acquired by Juneau Beach-based NextEra Energy, has drawn a crowd of 638 to the Baytowne Conference Center. The turnout is the highest in the history of the event, Gulf Power spokeswoman Kimberly Blair said.

Harper said it appears that unemployment rates, which are about 3 percent in in Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties, remain below state and national averages but appear to have bottomed out. Meanwhile, housing prices are being affected by low inventories and rising interest rates.

Unemployment in Holmes, Washington and Jackson counties are hovering at close to 4 percent. In Bay and Gulf counties, which were hammered by Hurricane Michael, the rates stand at 5 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively.

“We’ve hit the bottom with unemployment rates,” Harper said. “However, we are not predicting a recession for the next several months. Six months from now we should still be chugging along.”

Slowed immigration, less trade and less demand for products due to the phasing out of the federal stimulus package have all negatively impacted Florida’s economy and are all risks to business that must be considered, he added. And while household and debt service expense is low, the federal debt has created a scenario in which the country is spending more than $3,000 in borrowed money annually for every man, woman and child in the country.

Harper said the timber industry, an economic engine in several rural counties in the eastern Panhandle, was devastated by Hurricane Michael and could take 12 years to recover.

In Calhoun and Jackson counties, “the heart of timber country, the damages were just extraordinary,” he said, and estimated insurance claims in Calhoun County could have been made on as much as 42 percent of the county's total taxable property.

Bay County claimed $16.5 billion in hurricane damages and the total taxable value for all affected counties has reached $47.3 billion. Insurance claims for the storm averaged $43,000, he said.

Looking to the future, Harper said the region needs to improve the quality of its local assets, including labor, capital, natural resources, intellectual property and entrepreneurial ability. Doing so will allow those assets to earn a higher return on the marketplace.

Small and new businesses are no longer the job generators they once were, Harper said. “Increasingly, well-paid jobs are in large technology-intensive superstar businesses.”

The high paying, sustainable jobs of the future will go to employees who can “work side by side with technology and manage it productively,” he said.

The military presence in Okaloosa and Santa Rosa counties has pushed the median household income up to more than $60,000 and $65,000, respectively, Harper said, but other Panhandle counties struggle with much lower median household incomes. Washington at $36,000, Calhoun at $37,000 and Holmes at $40,000 are among the counties with lowest median household incomes.

Education is key to raising income levels, Harper said. To improve education will require reversing trends of dropping the amount taxpayers contribute to it and lowering student debt.