WASHINGTON, D.C. — As 2011 gets under way, Washington, D.C. — flush with government and government-supporting jobs — has the healthiest labor market among major U.S. metro areas. By one estimate, there's roughly one advertised job opening for every unemployed worker in the D.C. region, which includes parts of Maryland and Virginia. The nation's capital has an unemployment rate of just 6 percent, according to the latest data. That's the lowest among the country's largest 50 metros, and 3.4 percentage points below the national average.
Of course, Washington's status as America's best job market could change if Congress slashes government spending, as many Republicans have pledged. But it won't be as bad as the situation in Las Vegas, the worst major metro area in which to go job-hunting these days. Bucked by the real estate bust and downturn in tourism, Sin City's unemployment rate is 14.3 percent. A year prior, it was 12.5 percent. In Vegas there are more than eight unemployed workers for every job opportunity posted online, according to the monthly Job Search Difficulty Index compiled by job search engine Juju.com.
These two metro areas top Forbes' 2011 lists of America's Best and Worst Job Markets, which provide a current snapshot of labor markets across the country. The areas with the most promising employment situations — at least for now — tend to be government hubs like D.C.; Austin, Texas; Oklahoma City; and Hartford, Conn. In fact, six of our top 10 job markets are state capitals.
"State governments haven't necessarily been hiring in large numbers, but they haven't been laying off," says Brendan Cruickshank, vice president at New York City-based Juju.com. Recent jobs reports released by the U.S. Labor Department highlight that, national, employment in the health care sector and temporary work has also trended upward in recent months
The metro areas that have fared worst: those where construction and real estate, tourism and manufacturing have played a large part in economic growth. Think Miami, Orlando and Detroit. But just as state spending can buoy employment in some capitals, state budget problems can also weigh heavily on unemployment. In Sacramento, Calif., for example, the unemployment rate in November (the most recent month for which data is available) was 12.6 percent. By Juju.com's estimates there are more than five job-seekers for every job posted online in Sacramento. The state's budget crisis has a widespread effect; we count four California metro areas — San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Riverside — among the tough areas in the country to find work.
To compile our 2011 lists of America's Best and Worst Job Markets, Forbes relied equally on the latest metro unemployment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and on Juju.com's monthly Job Search Difficulty Index for Major Cities. Moody's Economy.com provided additional analysis for the trends in each labor market on our lists.
The BLS data show the percentage of people are not able to find a job among those who are actively looking for work. JuJu.com's index culls as many as 4 million job listings from other online job search engines and compares those openings to BLS' unemployment figures for each metro. The index shows how many job-seekers there are per opening. We examined only the 50 largest metros, since big cities are most likely to offer the greatest opportunities for employment.
With a 7.8 percent unemployment rate, Baltimore, Md., enjoys some of the government spillover from Washington, D.C., less than an hour away. The military's base realignment plans are also expected to bring more jobs to Baltimore, which also has a thriving research and health care sector, thanks to Johns Hopkins University.
Aside from being the capital of Texas, Austin has a number of assets that have helped it weather the economic downturn: It's a state capital and major convention center, home of the University of Texas and a tech hub. In October local officials announced that the area will become home to a new Eco-Merge Green Corporate Center devoted to producing new technologies. Juju.com reports that in December there were 2.39 job-seekers for every online posting in Austin.
Boston, where the unemployment rate is 7.4 percent, is another state capital bolstered by the tech, health care and education sectors. According to Moody's Economy.com, state budget problems and a restructuring in the financial services sector could weaken Boston's growth in the short run, but it's expected to pick up by the end of the year.
Even if a metro area appears on our list for worst job markets, it's not necessarily doomed to high unemployment forever. For example, although San Diego, which leans heavily on the defense sector for jobs, could be affected by military budget cuts, a future focus by the Pentagon on the Asia-Pacific region could also provide a long-run boost to the area. For now, however, San Diego's unemployment rate remains at 10.4 percent, above the national average.
Miami, where there were more than nine job-seekers per posted opening in December, is still struggling to recover from the real estate bust. But in the coming months a boost in trade (due to the region's close ties with Latin America) and tourism could bring a swift reversal of fortune. "Miami's recovery will be among the fastest in the nation," housing issues notwithstanding, says a recent analysis by Moody's Economy.com.
Creating jobs in 2011 will be the top priority for the new crop of policymakers who just took office across the country. The task is made easier by stock markets that are now trading at two-year highs and temporary certainty around tax rates, which businesses like. But tight state budgets could provide a hurdle for some metros as they recover. Every lawmaker in the land is aware that national unemployment has been near 10 perent since 2009. They've got their work cut out for them.
© 2012 Forbes.com