Wide variation in national, regional unemployment; best metros for stretching paycheck

We’re so accustomed to hearing about Seattle’s hot economy that’s it’s jarring to hear it described as “so-so.” Yet Seattle Times business columnist Jon Talton today does just that in a column reviewing national and regional unemployment statistics. While the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett metro division has an unemployment rate of 4.0 percent, “full employment,” to the south, Tacoma-Lakewood still post an unemployment rate of 6.0 percent.

Pulling the lens out a bit, however, and Seattle’s numbers are good but so-so. I base this on today’s metropolitan and state employment report from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For example, such tech superstars as Boston (2.9 percent), San Francisco (3.8 percent), Austin (3.5 percent) and San Jose (3.8 percent) have lower unemployment rates than Seattle. Denver’s rate in September was 2.9 percent. The U.S. rate was 5 percent.

The BLS report says,

Of the 51 metropolitan areas with a 2010 Census population of 1 million or more, Salt Lake City, Utah, and Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, Colo., had the lowest unemployment rates in September, 2.8 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively. New Orleans-Metairie, La., and Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, Calif., had the highest rates among the large areas, 6.2 percent each.

Thirty-one large areas had over-the-year unemployment rate decreases, 16 had increases, and 4 had no change. The largest rate decrease occurred in Boston-Cambridge-Nashua, Mass.-N.H. (-1.4 percentage points). The largest over-the-year rate increase occurred in Oklahoma City, Okla. (+1.2 percentage points).

We’ve written before about the urban-rural divide, noting that employment growth is concentrating in the nation’s largest metros. As the national data confirms, the metro experiences also differ considerably. 

And within Washington, the divide looms large, with rural counties still showing unemployment rates of more than 7.0 percent, as the Washington State Employment Security Department map shows.

Further complicating the metropolitan employment story are the variances in salaries and cost-of-living. In New Geography, Joel Kotkin writes,

When Americans consider a move to another part of the country, they sometimes are forced to make a tough choice: should they go to a city with the best job opportunities, or a less economically vital area that offers a better standard of living, particularly more affordable housing? However,  there are still plenty of metropolitan areas in the U.S. where you can get the best of both worlds.

Center for Opportunity Urbanism senior fellow Wendell Cox has developed a set of rankings that identify metropolitan areas where salaries are relatively high relative to costs, and you get more for your paycheck.

There are some surprises.

There are several high-cost areas that do very well in this ranking, largely because they offer high incomes to match. The metro area with the highest annual wage when adjusted for cost of living is San Jose, the center of Silicon Valley. The cost of living there is 63 percent higher than the national average, the highest in the nation, but with the highest nominal pay per job at $112,300 ($27,000 above the next best), the metro area still ends up with the highest adjusted paycheck of $68,850.

Four other high-cost areas also make our top 10. Two are in Connecticut: No. 4 Bridgeport-Stamford, where the cost of living is 45 percent above the national average, and No. 5 Hartford, where costs are 15 percent above the national average. But higher wages — $85,400 for Bridgeport and $62,600 for Hartford — give residents the buying power to absorb those costs, and places these metros areas high on the list.The other two are No. 6 Boston and 10th-ranked Seattle.

Of course, if you’re not earning the average wage in the region, things don’t look quite so good. And, as we’ve pointed out, landing those good jobs now means earning the postsecondary credential or degree required.