Looking at the energy sector's hotbeds, however, doesn't tell the whole story. Another major factor behind a city's job offerings is how severely it experienced the housing crisis. There's a "zone of sanity" across the middle of the country, including the region around Kansas City, Mo., that largely avoided the real estate bubble and the subsequent foreclosure crisis.
Still other factors correlating with job growth--as evidenced by Shires' and my current and past studies -- are lower costs and taxes. For example, the area around Kennewick, Wash., is far less expensive than coastal communities in that same state, and residents and businesses there also enjoy cheap hydroelectric power. Compared with high-tech centers in California and the Northeast, such as San Jose and Boston, places like Austin offer both tax and housing-cost bargains, as do Fargo, N.D. and Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C.
College towns also did well on our list, particularly those in states that are both less expensive and outside the Great Lakes. Although universities -- and their endowments -- are feeling the recession's pinch, they continue to attract students. In fact, colleges saw a bumper crop of applicants this year, as members of the huge millennial generation, encompassing those born after 1983, reach that stage of life. More recently, college towns have emerged as incubators for new companies and as attractive places for retirees.
Specifically, the college town winners include not only well-known places like Austin and Chapel Hill, but also less-hyped places like Athens, Ga., home of the University of Georgia; College Station, Texas, where 48,000-student Texas A&M University is located; Morgantown, W.Va., site of the University of West Virginia; and Fargo, the hub of North Dakota State University.
Democratic states are glaringly absent from the top of the list. You don't get to a traditionally blue state -- in a departure from past years, Obama won North Carolina -- until you get to Olympia, Wash., and Seattle, which ranked No. 6 among the large cities.
But political changes afoot could affect the trajectory of many of our fast-growing communities -- and not always in positive ways. It's possible that the Obama administration's new energy policies, which may discourage domestic fossil fuel production, could put a considerable damper on the still-robust parts of Texas and elsewhere where coal, oil and natural gas industries are still cornerstones of economic success.
By contrast, the wind- and solar-power industries seem to be, as of now, relatively small job generators, and with energy prices low, endeavors in these areas are sustainable only with massive subsidies from Washington. But still, if these sectors grow in size and profitability, other locales that have not typically been seen as energy hubs over the past few decades may benefit -- notably parts of California, although Texas and the Great Plains also seem positioned to profit from these developments.
Another critical concern for some communities is the potential for major cutbacks on big-ticket defense spending. This would be of particular interest to communities in places like Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia where new aircraft are currently assembled. Over the years, blue states like California have seen their defense industry shrivel as the once-potent Texas Congressional delegation and the two Bushes tilted toward Lone Star State contractors.