Cabot, Vt., is a bad location if you want to work in politics but ideal if you're interested in cheese. West Yellowstone, Mont., doesn't have a huge finance sector, but it's a mecca for park rangers. But for most people looking for work, major metropolitan areas offer the best variety of job opportunities, along with the excitement and energy of urban life. That's why college graduates flock to New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago every year to start their careers.
But they might be headed in the wrong direction. Those four cities landed near the bottom of our list of the best cities to get a job. Using U.S. government data supplied by Moody's Economy.com, we ranked the largest 100 metropolitan areas according to their unemployment rates, cost of living, median household income, job growth and income growth.
While we expected the cost of living to weigh down big cities' rankings, we didn't know they would fare so badly in the other categories as well. Detroit and New Orleans, unsurprisingly, are the two worst cities to get a job. But New York was 96th. Chicago beat NYC by a hair, coming in 93rd. And San Francisco and Los Angeles did slightly better, coming in 87th and 85th, respectively.
Why? We used the latest available figures for unemployment, cost of living and median household income. For job and income growth, however, we used a five-year average. That means the 2001 dot-com bust hurt the rankings of some major cities. "All of those areas were hit really hard during the 2001 recession, the dot-com bust and the accompanying financial bust," says Steve Cochrane, an economist with Moody's Economy.com. Hiring didn't pick up until early 2005, he says.
By contrast, the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area is the best place to get a job, partly because consultants, lobbyists and Congressional staffers didn't suffer as much during the recession. "In Washington, D.C., you have a lot of government stuff, which is relatively impervious to the business cycles," says Jonas Prising, president of the North American division of Manpower, a staffing firm.
The northeast and Midwest fared poorly in our ranking, while the south and the southwest soared. Only two cities north of Washington, D.C., made it onto the list, although Poughkeepsie, N.Y., deserves a shout out for landing at 17. By contrast, Florida, Virginia and California all host multiple cities in the top 15.
Businesses and workers are both seeking sunny skies. "Corporations have been leaving the northeast, and going toward the southeast, where the climate is easier and the cost of living is easier," says Nels Olson, a managing director with executive search firm Korn/Ferry International. Retirees are migrating south for the same reasons. Meanwhile, Asian auto firms like Toyota Motor and Nissan Motor are building plants in southern states, where unions are scarce.
To be sure, these rankings aren't definitive. Investment bankers shouldn't seek work in Phoenix just because it's our second-best city to get a job. And blackjack dealers should probably avoid Washington, D.C. The cities on our list simply have the right conditions for a speedy job search and a high salary.
Some offer a wide variety of opportunities, while others have seen sector-specific growth. A resurgence of travel and tourism has boosted Honolulu, which is 15th on our list. In the 1990s, as Japan's economy languished, Hawaii's tourism industry suffered as well. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, however, American travelers began looking for domestic vacation spots. "Honolulu has made a 180-degree turnaround," Cochrane says. "Now not only is domestic travel strong, but international travel is coming back."
Las Vegas, number three on our list, benefited from all the trends boosting the region that Cochrane calls the "southern crescent." In the last decade, the entertainment industry has become more family friendly. Meanwhile, immigrants and retirees have flocked there, the former for jobs and the latter for warm weather. The construction industry has also flourished.
By contrast, New York and Chicago are mature cities, without as much space to expand. Even during boom years, large metropolitan areas often see tempered growth because their economies are so diverse. The Los Angeles economy, for example, relies on film, international trade, travel and tourism, and the defense industry. "Even if one industry is doing well, there's a whole lot else that could be holding it back," Cochrane says.