Since the U.S. economy imploded in 2008, there’s been a steady shift in leadership in job growth among our major metropolitan areas. In the earliest years, the cities that did the best were those on the East Coast that hosted the two prime beneficiaries of Washington’s resuscitation efforts, the financial industry and the federal bureaucracy. Then the baton was passed to metro areas riding the boom in the energy sector, which, if not totally dead in its tracks, is clearly weaker.
Right now, job creation momentum is the strongest in tech-oriented metropolises and Sun Belt cities with lower costs, particularly the still robust economies of Texas.
Topping our annual ranking of the best big cities for jobs are the main metro areas of Silicon Valley: the San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco Metropolitan Division, followed by San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, swapping their positions from last year.
Our rankings are based on short-, medium- and long-term job creation, going back to 2003, 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), which are our focus this week, as well as medium-size metro areas (between 150,000 and 450,000 nonfarm jobs) and small ones (less than 150,000 nonfarm jobs) in order to make the comparisons more relevant to each category. (For a detailed description of our methodology, click here.)
An Economy Fit For Geeks
Venture capital and private-equity firms keep pouring money into U.S. technology companies, lured by the promise of huge IPO returns. Last year was the best for new stock offerings since the peak of the dot-com bubble, with 71 biotech IPOs and 55 tech IPOs. It’s continuing to fuel strong job creation in Silicon Valley. Employment expanded 4.8% in the San Francisco Metropolitan Division in 2014, which includes the job-rich suburban expanses of San Mateo to the south, and employment is up 21.2% since 2009. This has been paced by growth in professional business services jobs in the area, up 9% last year, and in information jobs, which includes many social media functions – information employment expanded 8.3% last year and is up 28.7% since 2011.
San Jose which, like San Francisco, was devastated in the tech crash a decade ago, has also rebounded smartly. The San Jose MSA clocked 4.9% job growth last year and 20.0% since 2009. Employment in manufacturing, once the heart of the local economy, has grown 8% since 2011, after a decade of sharp reversals, but the number of information jobs there has exploded, up 16% last year and 35.7% since 2011.
Meanwhile, there’s been a striking reversal of fortune in the greater Washington, D.C., area, while the greater New York area has also fallen off the pace. In the years after the crash, soaring federal spending pushed Washington-Arlington-Alexandria to as high as fifth on our annual list of the best cities for jobs; this year it’s a meager 47th, with job growth of 1.5% in 2014, following meager 0.2% growth in 2013, while Northern Virginia (50th) and Silver Spring-Frederick-Rockville (64th) also lost ground, dropping, respectively, five and 15 places.
Job growth has also slowed in the greater New York region, which also was an early star performer in the immediate aftermath of the recession, in part due to the bank bailout that consolidated financial institutions in their strongest home region. Virtually all the areas that make up greater New York have lost ground in our ranking: the New York City MSA has fallen to 17th place from seventh last year, as employment growth tailed off to 2.6% in 2014 from 3.2% in 2013. Meanwhile Nassau-Suffolk ranks 49th, Rockland-Westchester 60th and Newark is second from the bottom among the biggest metro areas in 69th place.
The Shift To ‘Opportunity Cities’ Continues
Not every tech hot spot has the Bay Area’s advantages, which include venture capital, the presence of the world’s top technology companies and a host of people with the know-how to start and grow companies.
But other metro areas have something Silicon Valley lacks: affordable housing. Most of the rest of our top 15 metro areas have far lower home prices than the Bay Area, or for that matter Boston, Los Angeles or New York. And they also have experienced strong job growth, often across a wider array of industries, which provides opportunities for a broader portion of the population.
The combination of lower prices and strong job opportunities are what earns them our label of “opportunity cities.” The Bay Area may attract many of the best and brightest, but it is too expensive for most. Despite the current boom, the area’s population growth has been quite modest — San Jose has had an average population growth rate of 1.5% over the past four years. In contrast, seven of our top 10 metro areas, including third place Dallas-Plano-Irving, Texas, and No. 4 Austin, Texas, are also in the top 10 in terms of population growth since 2000. If prices and costs are reasonable, people will go to places where work is most abundant.
In the Dallas metro area, the job count grew 4.2% last year, paced by an 18.6% expansion in professional business services, while overall employment is up 15.7% since 2009. Job growth last year in Austin, Texas, was a healthy 3.9%, while the information sector expanded by 4.7% and since 2011 by 17.8%.
Many Texas cities, of course, have benefited from the energy boom — the recent downturn in oil prices make it likely that growth, particularly in No. 6 Houston, will decelerate in coming years.
But what is most remarkable about the top-performing cities is the diversity of their economies. Most have tech clusters, but several, such as Houston, Nashville, Tenn., Dallas and Charlotte, N.C., have growing manufacturing, trade, transportation and business services sectors. The immediate prognosis, however, may be brightest in places like Denver and Orlando, where growth is less tied to energy than business services, trade and tourism. Nashville, which places fifth on our list, has particularly bright prospects, due not only to its growing tech and manufacturing economy, but also its strong health care sector which, according to one recent study, contributes an overall economic benefit of nearly $30 billion annually and more than 210,000 jobs to the local economy.
Some economies lower in our rankings have made strong improvements, notably Atlanta-Sandy Spring-Roswell, which rose to 12th this year, a jump of 12 places. Long a star performer, the Georgia metro area stumbled through the housing bust, but it appears to have regained its footing, with strong job growth across a host of fields from manufacturing and information to health, and particularly business services, a category in which employment has increased 24% since 2009.
In California, one big turnaround story has been the Riverside-San Bernardino area, which gained six places to rank 11th this year as it has again begun to benefit from migration caused by coastal Southern California’s impossibly high home prices.
Several mid-American metro areas also are showing strong improvement. Louisville-Jefferson County, Ky., jumped fifteen places to 21st, propelled by strong growth in manufacturing, business services and finance. Kansas City, Kan. (23rd), and Kansas City, Mo. (46th), both made double-digit jumps in our rankings. In Michigan, Detroit-Dearborn-Livonia, bolstered by the recovery of the auto industry, gained six places to 59th, while manufacturing hub Warren-Troy-Farmington Hills picked up two to 39th. These may not be high growth areas, but these metro area no longer consistently sit at the bottom of the list.
One of the biggest resurgent stars in past rankings, New Orleans-Metairie, dropped 17 places to 43rd, while Oklahoma City fell 17 places to 33rd. These cities lack the economic diversity to withstand a long-term loss of energy jobs if the sector goes into a prolonged downturn.
Yet perhaps the most troubling among the also-rans are the metro areas that have remained steadily at the bottom. These are largely Rust Belt cities such as last place Camden, N.J., which has been at or near that position for years.
Now the best prospects appear to be in tech-heavy regions, but it’s important to recognize that a key contributor to the tech sector’s frenzy of venture capital and IPOs had been the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented monetary interventions, which are now phasing out. As it is, headwinds to expansion in the Bay Area are strong. High housing prices, according to recent study, may make it very difficult for these companies to expand their local workforces. The median price of houses in tech suburbs like Los Gatos now stand at nearly $2 million — rich for all but a few — while downtown Palo Alto office rents have risen an impossible 43% in the last five years.
Companies like Google, which has run into opposition over its proposed new headquarters expansion, may choose to shift more employment to other tech centers, such as Austin, Denver, Seattle, Raleigh and Salt Lake City, where the cost of doing business tends to be less. Similarly the stronger dollar could erode the modest progress made by some industrial cities, such as Detroit and Warren, as it gives a strong advantage to foreign competitors.
Normally we would expect these processes to play out slowly. But in these turbulent times, it’s best to keep an eye out for disruptive changes — a new economic cataclysm, should one occur, could quickly shift the playing field once again.
Joel Kotkin is editor of NewGeography.com and Presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and Michael Shires is Associate Professor of Public Policy, Pepperdine University