Stable employment and new career opportunities give these cities an edge.
What a difference a year makes. Last summer, the energy and finance sectors of the economy seemed to be thriving, and manufacturing was going strong.
Today, many cities are relying on government programs, universities and stalwart industries, such as health care, to bolster employment in a weak economy. Those factors appeared frequently when we assembled candidates for our 2009 Best Cities list, which focuses on places that have stable employment plus the talent to create new, well-paying positions. A robust job market makes these cities safe havens during the recession and will give them a head start toward growth when the recovery takes off.
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When our numbers guru, Kevin Stolarick, evaluated U.S. cities for their growth potential, he looked not just at the overall number of jobs, but also at the quality of those positions and the ability of cities to hold on to them when the economy softens. Says Stolarick, who is research director at the Martin Prosperity Institute, a think tank that studies economic prosperity: "Although downturns are felt by everyone, our research has shown that the impact is less severe for those in the creative class -- people who are paid to think."
One key indicator of such heartiness is the presence of people who work in professional occupations, such as science, engineering, architecture and education. And given that many of you, our readers, work in such professions, these are places where you may find not only a job but also the company of people like yourselves.
We included the cities' greater metro areas because the suburbs and surrounding communities contribute to job stability. And big cities don't have a monopoly on vitality; this year we considered smaller metro areas as well.
Take a spin through our 2009 Best Cities to see which places have the right stuff in these tough times.
No. 1: Huntsville, Ala.Population: 378,057Percentage of Workforce in Creative Class: 39.7Cost-of-Living Index: 91 (100 being the national average)Median Household Income: $51,275Salary Growth (2004-2008): 9.7%
Huntsville isn't called Rocket City for nothing. This northern Alabama city represents critical mass for the nation's missile-defense and aerospace industries.
No. 2: Albuquerque, N.M.Population: 819,570Percentage of Workforce in Creative Class: 30Cost-of-Living Index: 98 (100 being the national average)Median Household Income: $45,634Salary Growth (2004-2008): 7.8%
The city and state crave high tech jobs, especially in the renewable-energy industry. Albuquerque is developing its film industry with the same zeal. Albuquerque also bills itself as a green city and, figuratively speaking, it is. The city requires everything from homes to commercial buildings to be energy-efficient.
No. 3: Washington, D.C.Population: 5,263,322Percentage of Workforce in Creative Class: 43.7Cost-of-Living Index: 138 (100 being the national average)Median Household Income: $81,163Salary Growth (2004-2008): 8.7%
For better or worse, the federal government is big and getting bigger. Uncle Sam fuels nearby companies in almost every sector, especially law firms, lobbyists, and aerospace and defense companies.
No. 4: Charlottesville, Va.Population:190,560Percentage of Workforce in Creative Class: 38.2Cost-of-Living Index: 106 (100 being the national average)Median Household Income: $53,076Salary Growth (2004-2008):4.8%
The home of Thomas Jefferson's university is an unexpected blend of Southern charm and liberal edge, with a strong business base. UVA provides Charlottesville with more than employment. The city is a two-hour drive from Washington, D.C., and three hours from Norfolk Naval Base. This proximity helped it draw the U.S. Army National Ground Intelligence Center, which employs 750 people in a variety of fields, including engineering and foreign affairs.
No. 5: Athens, Ga.Population: 183,351Percentage of Workforce in Creative Class: 32.2Cost-of-Living Index: 100 (100 being the national average)Median Household Income: $40,115Salary Growth (2004-2008): 9.3%
Nicknamed the Classic City for both its name and neoclassical architecture, Athens is anything but old-fashioned. The University of Georgia is in large part responsible for the city's energy. Athens also boasts a hub of regional medical services and has an unexpected manufacturing base. Hospitality is another driver of the economy and the only sector to have shown employment growth in 2009.
No. 6: Olympia, Wash.Population: 233,113Percentage of Workforce in Creative Class: 36.1Cost-of-Living Index: 105 (100 being the national average)Median Household Income: $55,129Salary Growth (2004-2008): 22%
Olympia is a cultural diamond in the rough of the Pacific Northwest. Mischaracterized sometimes as a sleepy government town, Washington's state capital enjoys a thriving visual and performing-arts scene. But its state government continues to be the keystone of the city's economy; it employs about half of the city's workforce. Education is another big driver of the city's growth and character.
No. 7: Madison, Wis.Population: 548,154Percentage of Workforce in Creative Class: 35.1Cost-of-Living Index: 100 (100 being the national average)Median Household Income: $58,090Salary Growth (2004-2008): 8.2%
You can't argue with Madison's numbers. It has a long track record of low unemployment, and its jobless rate is currently three percentage points below the national average. The city also wins for its low crime rate, first-rate public schools and a ready-made economy that feeds off its two largest assets: The University of Wisconsin and the state capital, comprising 20% of Madison's jobs. The other 80% come from its strong mix of tech and biotech firms.
No. 8: Austin, Tex.Population: 1,533,263Percentage of Workforce in Creative Class: 36.8Cost-of-Living Index: 94(100 being the national average)Median Household Income: $54,827Salary Growth (2004-2008): 7%
While most cities around the country posted job layoffs in the past year, Austin added 3,300 jobs, the biggest bump in the country. The increase covered a broad swath, from professional services, education and hospitality to health care and government. Gains in those sectors more than offset losses in manufacturing and IT -- though the unemployment rate in the area has crept up.
No. 9: Flagstaff, Ariz.Population: 126,087Percentage of Workforce in Creative Class: 28.8Cost-of-Living Index: 116 (100 being national average)Median Household Income: $48,171Salary Growth (2004-2008): 9.8%
Unlike the trains that regularly come through town, singing out reminders of Flagstaff's heritage, this city is far from predictable. You can feel its Old West charm through and through, but Flagstaff is infused with new energy -- both from its residents and college students and Northern Arizona University. The university adds jobs to the city's economy, plus arts and entertainment to its cultural scene.
No. 10: Raleigh, N.C.Population: 1,001,313Percentage of Workforce in Creative Class: 35.6Cost-of-Living Index: 100 (100 being national average)Median Household Income: $57,974Salary Growth (2004-2008): 5.7%
Raleigh has an enviable economic base, built on three universities -- UNC, Duke, and North Carolina State -- and Research Triangle Park, where employers in everything from biotech to computers still thrive. Although the local unemployment rate has doubled in the past year, to 8.6%, it's still lower than the 10.8% rate for the state as a whole.