Why Smaller Cities Make For Hotter Job Markets


Move over New York and take the bench San Francisco, the hottest job markets aren’t in the big cities. Midsize cities with populations under 2.3 million in states with low or no income taxes are attracting workers. The hottest cities on the list include Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; Raleigh, North Carolina; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Jacksonville, Florida.

The Wall Street Journal partnered with Moody’s Analytics to assess 300 metro areas for unemployment rate, labor-force participation rate, job growth, labor-force growth, and wage growth in 2021.

The five hottest cities shared a few commonalities. They each were home to large universities, state capitals, or high-tech employers. Two have no personal state income tax, and the others hover around 5%. Here’s the deets of why these cities are topping the charts.

1. Austin, Texas.

Austin has a thriving tech hub and is home to Oracle Corporation. Tesla moved its headquarters to Austin during the pandemic – leaving Palo Alto, California. According to the WSJ study, Austin had the highest share of people working or looking for work. It also had the highest growth in payroll employment and wage growth.

Austin is the state capital and home to the University of Texas’ flagship campus. It’s well-known for its vibrant music scene, and is popular for hiking, biking, swimming, and boating. Austin is a year-round city with a temperate climate. Three years in a row (2017, 2018, and 2019), Austin claimed the number one spot on the Best Place to Live in the U.S. list by U.S. News and World Report (before slipping to number 13 in 2022).

2. Nashville, Tennessee.

Nashville is a hotbed for music and entertainment. But Nashville’s top industries also include health care, transportation, and banking and finance. Nashville scored 7.1 out of 10 for local job market, housing affordability, and quality of life in the U.S. News and World Report. Unemployment is just 2.4% (March 2022), and Tennessee does not have an individual income tax.

Music City is also a capital city and home to a major university, Vanderbilt. It’s home to the Grand Ole Opry House, Country Music Hall of Fame, and historic Ryman Auditorium. The downtown district is lively with many of country music’s superstars getting their start in any one of the local honky-tonks. If playing outside is your jam, there are more than 10 stunning waterfalls within a short drive of Nashville.

3. Raleigh, North Carolina.

Voted sixth by U.S. News and World Report, Raleigh’s top industries include manufacturing, trade, transportation, and utilities, information, and finance. Raleigh is a hub for tech giants Google and Apple. It’s home to the second largest banking center in the U.S. It has an income tax rate of just 5.25% and cost of living 5% lower than the national average.

Also a capital city and home to North Carolina State University, Raleigh makes up part of the Research Triangle (along with Chapel Hill and Durham). Raleigh is one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. and for good reason. It has that small-town feel in the middle of a big city. The year-round weather is inviting and you’ll never run short on things to do.

4. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tech and IT is booming in Salt Lake City. Adobe makes its headquarters in SLC with a second $90 million facility in Lehi, Utah. Adobe is slated as the source for over $85 million in state corporate, payroll, and sales taxes over the next 20 years payable to the state. Other companies that call SLT home include Overstock.com, Instructure, and Domo. eBay expanded into SLC with a $250 million building upgrade to house its 1800 Utah employees. Utah has a 4.95% state income tax and an 8% lower cost of living than the national average.

If being outside is your thing, SLC should be top on your list. Eleven ski resorts are within a short drive of SLC including Alta and Deer Valley, two of only three resorts that don’t allow snowboarders (Mad River Glen in Vermont is the third). World class ice climbing and hiking exist in the two mountain ranges that surround SLT: Wasatch Mountains and Oquirrh Mountains. And after you’re done exploring, you can now enjoy a beer with up to 5% alcohol! In November 2019, the 86-year-old law prohibiting beer above 3.2% was finally replaced. The new law was supported by Utah’s vibrant craft brew scene with plenty to choose from in Salt Lake.

5. Jacksonville, Florida.

Jumping up in the rankings in 2021, Jacksonville takes the fifth hottest job market, owing in part to the pandemic. Jacksonville is a logistics hub with its own seaport, two major interstate highways, rail, and air connections. Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. announced it would be moving its headquarters out of New Jersey to make its new home in Jacksonville.

Jacksonville is the most populous city in Florida with over 850 square miles of beaches – and it is always beach weather. It’s the birthplace of southern rock and hosts the annual Jacksonville Jazz Festival every Memorial Day weekend. The cost of living is 11% below the national average and state income tax is just 5.5%.

Because of the pandemic, people moved to find more affordability and improved work-life balance. Big cities suffered where mid-sized cities prospered. Companies followed suit mid-pandemic finding more affordable space outside of large metropolitan areas. It’s likely this trend will continue as technology propels us forward as a digital economy.


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