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career opportunities

It’s a pretty good time to be a worker in America. For the most part, jobs are available and unemployment is on the decline. But availability of jobs alone does not mean a city is a good place to start a career. The cities with the best career opportunities combine high pay, strong support networks and affordable homes. This leaves workers with the opportunity to not only have a fulfilling career but also a chance to hit financial milestones like owning a home or investing with a financial advisor.

Below we look at these and other factors to find the best cities for career opportunities. In order to come up with our final rankings, we looked at metrics like unemployment rates, change in total employment, median income, income growth over time, annual housing costs and the number of career counselors and higher education teachers. Check our data and methodology below to see where we got our data and how we put it together.

This is SmartAsset’s fourth annual study on the best cities for career opportunities. Check out the 2017 version here.

Key Findings

  • Utah is a good state for careers – Utah claims two spots in our top 10, with Provo in second place and Logan in sixth. The largest city in the state, Salt Lake City, also ranked well, at 30th. Utah cities scored well thanks to its affordability and an abundance of job opportunities.
  • North Carolina cities dominate the bottom – At the bottom of our rankings are three North Carolina cities: Jacksonville, Rocky Mount and Goldsboro. All of these cities have high unemployment rates, with disappointing employment growth figures from 2017 to 2018.

career opportunities

1. Ames, Iowa

Ames took the top spot in this analysis for the second year in a row. This city has the lowest unemployment rate in our study, which makes it a great place to start a career. Only 1.5% of residents here are unemployed.

Other metrics also point to Ames as a good place to stick it out for a long career. You can expect your income to rise pretty substantially as you gain experience here. According to our data, the average Ames worker earns $38,360 per year and can expect to see their pay increase by 55.4% between the ages of 25-44 and 45-64.

2. Provo, Utah

Provo is a booming city with plenty of opportunity for anyone who wants to start a career. From 2017 to 2018, the total number of jobs in Provo increased by 4%, the highest mark in our top 10. Workers here can also look forward to good pay raises throughout their careers. Late-career workers earn about 43% more than early-career workers.

If you are thinking about making a career switch or need extra training, there are few better places to be than Provo. This city ranks in the top 10 for career training workers per 1,000 workers.

3. Pocatello, Idaho

Pocatello, Idaho jumped the ranks from 25th last year to third this year. The biggest reason for the improved ranking is the improved economic situation in this city. According to BLS data, this city saw a 3.5% increase in employment from 2017 to 2018. The unemployment rate currently sits at 2.6%.

You can also expect to get quite a few raises over your time in Pocatello. According to our data, the average late-career worker earns 34% more than the average early-career worker.

4. Greeley, Colorado

Greeley dropped from second place last year to fourth in this year’s study. This city has an unemployment rate of only 2.4%, a top 20 rate. That number will probably continue to fall as the Greeley economy creates more jobs. From 2017 to 2018, the total number of jobs in Greeley increased by 3.8%. For that metric, the city ranks 15th. It also ranks in the top 25% of cities for median income and income growth over time.

The one concern for anyone starting a career here is the cost of housing. Greeley has a below-average score in that metric. The average home costs $11,100 per year.

5. Huntsville, Alabama

Huntsville is one of the best cities to work in tech, and it’s also a great city for any other career. This city has the third-highest average income in the top 10 at $38,100. While that is a high number, workers who have advanced through their career in Huntsville earn even more. Late-career workers earn 38% more on average than early career workers.

6. Logan, Utah

Logan ranks well because not only does it have a wide range of available working opportunities but housing is also affordable. The unemployment rate here is only 2.5%, and the median home costs only $8,500 per year. That means most residents here should have no trouble meeting financial goals like building up their savings account or saving for retirement.

7. Lafayette, Indiana

Lafayette has an above-average score in every metric but one. The city scores in the top 15% for a low unemployment rate and change in employment. Lafayette has an unemployment rate of only 2.7%, and the total number of job in this city grew by 3.1% from 2017 to 2018.

The one metric that hurts its score is the lack of raises. Workers between the ages of 45 and 64 earn only 18% more than workers between the ages of 25 and 44. For that metric, Lafayette ranks 175th.

8. Wausau, Wisconsin

Wausau, Wisconsin has a pretty strong labor market, a good thing for any worker looking to start a career. The unemployment rate is only 2.5%, a figure not many other cities can beat. The unemployment rate may continue to fall as Wausau continues to create jobs. From 2017 to 2018, total employment in Wausau increased by 2.5%.

9. Spartanburg, South Carolina

Spartanburg, the second-largest city in the Greenville–Spartanburg–Anderson combined statistical area ranks ninth. This city has a low unemployment rate and saw a high increase in employment from 2017 to 2018. For residents who want to take the next step in their career through education, Spartanburg is a good place to be. This city 6.05 higher education teachers per 1,000 workers, which is the third-most in the top 10.

10. Dayton, Ohio

Dayton is the most affordable city in the top 10. The median home costs under $8,000 per year, a score which is beaten by only 26 cities. However people looking to move here for their career probably will want to have a job secured before they arrive. The unemployment rate in Dayton is the highest in our top 10 at 3.7%.

There are some signs of improvement on the unemployment front. From 2017 to 2018, the number of new jobs grew by 2.2%. This city is also packed with higher education teachers, a good sign for anyone looking to take their learning to the next level.

career opportunities

Data and Methodology

In order to find the best cities for career opportunities in 2018, we looked at data for 355 cities. We compared these cities across the following seven metrics:

  • Unemployment rate. Data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is from April 2018.
  • Change in total employment from 2017-2018. This is the percent change in total employment in a city. Data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is from April 2017 to April 2018.
  • Median income. This is the annual median income for all workers. Data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is from 2017.
  • Income growth over time. This is the percent change in median income for households where the head of household was between the ages of 25 and 44 compared to households where the head of household was between the ages of 54 and 64. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2016 5-Year American Community Survey.
  • Annual median housing costs. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2016 5-Year American Community Survey.
  • Number of career counselors per 1,000 workers. Data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is for 2017
  • Number of post-secondary teachers per 1,000 workers. Data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is for 2017.

To create our final ranking, we first ranked each city in each metric. We then found each city’s average ranking, giving a half weight to the numbers of post-secondary teachers and career counselors and income growth. All other metrics received a full weighting. Using this average ranking, we created our final score. The city with the best average ranking received a score of 100. The city with the worst average ranking received a 0.

Tips for Finding an Affordable Home

  • Keep your options open – When you just start out on your career it can be advantageous to keep your options open. Being ready to move at a moment’s notice can be the difference between landing your dream job and not. So until you are well established in your career with a long range plan it probably makes sense to rent instead of buy.
  • Property taxes can hurt – It is normal to focus on your mortgage when you are wondering how much home you can afford. But one cost that can go overlooked is property taxes. Depending on where you live property taxes can range greatly. For example, average property taxes in Alabama are $560 per year, while property taxes in New Jersey are the highest in the country, averaging $8,000 per year.
  • Get a second opinion – Any time you make a big financial decision like whether or not to buy a home, it’s a good idea to get expert advice. A financial advisor can help you figure out how a mortgage fits into your long-term plan and how much home you can afford. If you don’t know where to find a financial advisor check out SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool. It will match you with up to three local financial advisors who fit your needs.

Questions about our study? Contact us at press@smartasset.com.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/vitranc

Derek Miller, CEPF® Derek Miller is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh where he studied economics. He is passionate about using data to help people make better financial decisions. Derek is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® (CEPF®) and a member of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. He is a data journalist whose expertise is in finding the stories within the numbers. Derek's writing has been featured on Yahoo, AOL, and Huffington Post. He believes the biggest financial mistake people make is waiting too late to save for retirement and missing out on the wonders of compounding interest. Derek lives in Brooklyn.
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