Cities Where the Job Outlook Is Improving

The South and Southeast take a hit, while the Rust Belt gets some relief.

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It's a bit sunnier in the Rust Belt this summer.

In June, the national unemployment rate of 9.2 percent was 0.3 percentage points lower than in June 2010, according to the latest government data. And while it remains hard work to find the fruits of that recovery, such as it is, in the South and Southwest, the cities of the Rust Belt are welcoming a long-awaited sign of relief.

[See the 12 cities with the greatest employment gains.]

According to preliminary data from the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in 224 of 372 metropolitan areas was lower in June 2011 than in June 2010. But the recovery was less apparent in the South and Southeast. Of the cities that have seen the biggest jumps in unemployment, only two—Boise and Fresno—are not in the southern or southeastern parts of the country.

[See analysis of the latest jobs numbers.]

"I think the best answer is that what goes up must come down," says Daniel Hamermesh, professor of economics at the University of Texas-Austin, adding that broader industrial trends, combined with economic cycles, are major contributors to these regional unemployment statistics. "The biggest increases in unemployment, typically, had been the Rust Belt states." Michigan and Ohio have been among the hardest hit by the decline in manufacturing jobs not only during the recent recession but over the lpast decade. The manufacturing industry lost over 5.6 million jobs from January 2001 through December 2009, but has begun slowly adding workers. "I think what you're seeing really is a pretty standard cyclical thing where those who were hurt most by the downturn are benefited most when things turn around nationally, as they are and have been," says Hamermesh.

[Read how the debt ceiling deal might threaten economic recovery.]

Matthew Murray, professor of economics and associate director at the University of Tennessee's Center for Business and Economic Research, uses his state as an example of how broader educational trends may contribute to some regional employment shifts. "Relative to the state as a whole, [Tennessee's major cities] have a well-educated population, but by and large we don't compare well to the nation as a whole, in terms of educational attainment, even within our metropolitan areas." Nationwide, Americans with higher education have substantially lower unemployment rates than those who have a high school diploma or less.

[See the 14 cities with the biggest unemployment increases.]

Of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the country, these are the 12 cities that have seen the biggest decreases in unemployment from June 2010 through June 2011:

Metro Area June 2010 June 2011 Change
Grand Rapids-Wyoming, Mich. 10.8 8.9 -1.9
Youngstown-Warren-Boardman, Ohio 11.3 9.7 -1.6
Las Vegas-Paradise 15.3 13.8 -1.5
Detroit-Warren-Livonia 13.9 12.5 -1.4
Tulsa, Okla. 8 6.6 -1.4
Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, Ore. 10.5 9.2 -1.3
Oklahoma City 6.9 5.7 -1.2
Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor 9.5 8.3 -1.2
Indianapolis-Carmel 9.2 8 -1.2
Akron, Ohio 9.9 8.8 -1.1
Cape-Coral-Fort Myers, Fla. 12.7 11.6 -1.1
St. Louis 10.1 9 -1.1

These are the 14 cities with the largest percentage-point increases in their unemployment rates over the last year. 

Metro Area June 2010 June 2011 Change
El Paso, Texas 9.6 10.9 1.3
Memphis, Tenn. 10 10.9 0.9
McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas 12.1 13 0.9
Fresno, Calif. 16 16.8 0.8
Augusta-Richmond County, Ga. 9.2 9.9 0.7
San Antonio-New Braunfels 7.5 8.1 0.6
Columbia, S.C. 9.4 10 0.6
Birmingham-Hoover, Ala. 9.3 9.8 0.5
Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin, Tenn. 8.6 9 0.4
Little Rock, Ark. 7.1 7.5 0.4
Knoxville, Tenn. 7.9 8.3 0.4
Charleston-North Charleston-Summerville, S.C. 9.4 9.8 0.4
Chattanooga, Tenn. 8.7 9.1 0.4
Boise City-Nampa, Idaho 9.3 9.7 0.4

With jobs a top priority for many voters and politicians alike, candidates in the 2012 elections are sure to run on their job-creation plans and records. Hamermesh points to Texas Gov. Rick Perry as an example. The Lone Star State governor, often mentioned as a potential GOP candidate for the White House in 2012, has claimed much credit for Texas's relatively stable employment scene. During the recent recession, unemployment in Texas never climbed over 8.3 percent, even as the national rate crept past 10 percent. However, Hamermesh is skeptical of any politician who claims to have much control over employment trends. As to what a politician can do to create jobs, he says, "Not a whole heck of a lot. A little bit, maybe, but not very much. And always, I'm sure, much less than the local politician will attribute to him or herself."