It's tough to tell where the job market is going.
Nationwide employment totaled 132.3 million jobs as 2004's first half drew to a close. That was up 1.1 percent from the midpoint of 2003. So far, so good.
It was also true, though, that employment in 2004 remained 850,000 jobs below the mid-year figure for 2001. The recession, it seemed, was still casting its distant shadow across the nation's economy.
But the situation isn't completely confused. An American City Business Journals analysis of employment data has identified several hot spots for job creation. Places like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Dover, Del., and Laredo, Texas.
So here's a look at who's hot and who's not, based on employment trends in 226 markets from the middle of 2003 to the middle of 2004. Rankings are based on percentage increases or declines.
Major markets (Empoyment base of 1 million jobs or more)
Hottest -- Phoenix created 41,200 jobs during the past year, an average of 790 every week. (Seven major markets -- including Boston, Chicago and San Francisco -- either lost jobs or added fewer than 790 the entire year.) Phoenix's job growth rate of 2.6 percent more than doubled the national average of 1.1 percent. Runners-up: St. Louis and Washington-Baltimore.
Coldest -- Recent economic history has not been kind to Detroit, and the past year was no exception. A total of 38,000 jobs slipped away from the Detroit area between mid-2003 and mid-2004. That's a decline of 1.5 percent. Runners-up: San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose and Boston.
Medium markets (250,000 to 1 million jobs)
Hottest -- Las Vegas set a torrid pace in the late 1990s, creating more than 30,000 jobs per year, before its annual pace slipped under 20,000 early in the new century. Well, the accelerator is back to the floor again. Las Vegas added 38,800 jobs during the past year, for a growth rate of 4.8 percent. Runners-up: Charleston, S.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.
Coldest -- The slump in heavy manufacturing has hit most Midwestern industrial towns hard, but Toledo is suffering one of the biggest headaches of all. It has lost 8,700 jobs since the middle of last year, a decline of 2.8 percent. Runners-up: New Orleans and Hartford.
Small markets (Fewer than 250,000 jobs)
Hottest -- Dover, Del., and Laredo, Texas, are tied for top honors in this category. Each expanded its job base by 4.7 percent over the past year. The resulting pickups were 2,800 jobs in Dover, 3,500 in Laredo. Runners-up: Reno, Nev., and Green Bay, Wis.
Coldest -- It's back once again to the industrial Midwest for more bad news. Saginaw, Mich., lost 3.5 percent of its workforce in the past year alone, resulting in the disappearance of 6,100 jobs. Runners-up: Enid, Okla., and Lansing, Mich.
Hottest -- Dover, Del., may be tiny, with a total of just 62,400 jobs, but it's the hottest market in the East. Its job growth rate of 4.7 percent, in fact, is second-best in the nation, topped only by Las Vegas. Runners-up: Glens Falls, N.Y., and Washington-Baltimore.
Coldest -- Cape Cod (a/k/a Barnstable-Yarmouth), Mass., is not only a famous resort area, but it also boasted the East's fastest pace of employment growth during the late 1990s. The tide has turned, however. Cape Cod now is in last place with a decline of 2.1 percent. Runners-up: Elmira, N.Y., and Hartford.
Hottest -- Income levels are generally low in Laredo, Texas, but employment levels are on the rise. Laredo's increase of 4.7 percent since mid-2003 is best in the South -- and tied for second-best among all metros. Runners-up: McAllen, Texas; Bryan, Texas; and Daytona Beach, Fla.
Coldest -- America's smallest metropolitan area also has the distinction of being the South's least prosperous. Enid, Okla., lost 3.4 percent of its jobs during the past year. Runners-up: Houma, La., and New Orleans.
Hottest -- Green Bay, Wis., is best known as the home of the Packers. But its employment base is surprisingly strong and diverse. Green Bay's workforce has expanded by 4.1 percent since June 2003. No other Midwestern market did better than 3.5 percent. Runners-up: Dubuque, Iowa, and Waterloo, Iowa.
Coldest -- No U.S. metro lost a larger proportion of its employment base during the past year than Saginaw, Mich., with its previously mentioned decline of 3.5 percent.
Runners-up: Lansing, Mich., Toledo and Steubenville, Ohio.
Hottest -- Las Vegas' success story has already been documented. Its total increase during the past year: 38,800 jobs. Runners-up: Reno, Nev., and Casper, Wyo.
Coldest -- California's smaller markets historically have been saddled with higher-than-normal unemployment rates and lower-than-normal incomes. Exhibit No. 1 is Salinas, Calif., which has lost 2,600 jobs since mid-2003, a drop of 2.0 percent. Runners-up: Boise and San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose.