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Dr. Michael Shires & Joel Kotkin Rank Best Small and Medium-Size Cities for Jobs 2017 | Forbes

The Best Small And Medium-Size Cities For Jobs 2017

By Joel Kotkin and Michael Shires | May 25, 2017 | Forbes

Much of the U.S. media tends to see smaller cities as backwaters, inevitably left behind as the “best and brightest” head to the country’s mega-regions. The new economy, insists the Washington Post, favors large cities for start-ups and new businesses. Richard Florida has posited the emergence of a “winner take all urbanism” that tends to favor the richest cities, such as New York and San Francisco.

However this paradigm may reflect cosmopolitan attitudes and rivalries between large cities more than reality, with its complications and nuances. Smaller cities have long been disadvantaged in their ability to attract the most elite companies and Americans on the move, but that may well be changing. Following a post-financial crisis period in which many domestic migrants headed to the big cities, the latest Census data suggests that the flow is now going the other way, with the native born moving to smaller places with between 500,000 and a million people. The new trend in migration, notes the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, a confirmed big city booster, has been a “great hollowing out,” with Americans leaving places like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco for the suburbs and less costly, usually smaller cities. (Note that at least in New York’s case, foreign immigrants have been taking their places.)

To be sure, many smaller towns are suffering, and the bottom of our annual survey of employment trends in America's 421 metro areas is dominated by them, starting with last place Beckley, W.V.; followed by Johnstown, Pa.; Charleston, W.V.; Weirton-Steubenville, Ohio; and Peoria, Illinois. Yet at the same time small city America — which we define as metro areas with less than 150,000 jobs — accounted for seven of the 10 cities where job growth has been the strongest.


Our rankings are based on short-, medium- and long-term job creation, going back to 2005, and factor in momentum — whether growth is slowing or accelerating. We have compiled separate rankings for America’s 70 largest metropolitan statistical areas (those with nonfarm employment over 450,000), as well as medium-size metro areas (between 150,000 and 450,000 nonfarm jobs) and small ones (less than 150,000 nonfarm jobs), the latter two of which are our focus this week, in order to make the comparisons more relevant to each category. (For a detailed description of our methodology, click here.)

The Utah Model

What makes for successful smaller cities? There’s no simple formula, but several characteristics loom prominently. One is the extent and quality of its amenities: Many of our top cities are in attractive locations near mountains or the ocean, and tend to be home to colleges and universities. And, almost without exception, they are located in less costly, lower-tax states. Finally, it doesn’t hurt to be relatively close to a bigger urban area and a large airport.

All these characteristics apply to the best metro area for jobs in 2017 -- Provo-Orem, Utah. Located an hour south of Salt Lake City and its big airport, the Provo-Orem area has a population of 603,000 and sits alongside the scenic Wasatch Mountains. It's home to the well-regarded Brigham Young University. Last year the metro area’s job count expanded an impressive 4.4%, and employment is up 29.2% since 2011. As one might suspect in a college-oriented area, the biggest growth has been in fields that tend to hire educated people, such as business and professional services, in which employment grew 5.8% last year, financial services (up 6.7%) and the information sector (plus 5.8%).

But Provo is not alone in outstanding job growth in the Beehive State. In addition to its largest metro area, Salt Lake City, which ranks 13th, the small city of Saint George ranks third. Also benefiting from a scenic location in the state’s rugged southwestern corner, it’s less of a college town than a retirement and tourism magnet, which explains much of its 5.7% job growth last year. This was driven in large part by big expansions in health and education, with employment in those sectors up 4.6% last year and some 31.8% since 2011.

Another Utah superstar is 18th-ranked Ogden-Clearfield. Its 2.9% job growth last year was driven in large part by financial services, with employment up 5.7%, and education and health, up 5.9%.

So what accounts for one relatively small state that's home to only 3.1% of the U.S. population placing four cities in the top 20? Among the factors: the nation’s fastest population growth, a highly favorable business climate (Gov. Gary Herbert has made cutting red tape a priority of his administration), a burgeoning tech sector and a Mormon-influenced social culture that seems to encourage citizen engagement in local affairs.

Launch gallery of Best Midsized Cities for Jobs 2017