9 Small Towns With Big Opportunities

small towns with big job opportunitiesBy Michael B. Sauter, Douglas A. McIntyre

When a recession is as deep as the current one, people may have to look far and wide for job opportunities. The most obvious places to find jobs are in large cities, where the numbers of openings are likely to be highest. However, there are great job opportunities in some of America's smallest cities, too.

According to a 24/7 Wall St. analysis, employment has increased significantly in a number of smaller U.S. cities in the last ten years. We have identified nine cities where the populations may be small, but the economies are robust, job opportunities are good and unemployment rates are much lower than the national average.

While these prosperous urban areas have their own unique reasons for success, they also have several things in common. More than half have benefited from abundant natural resources and a healthy commodities market. Oil, natural gas, coal and potash are key economic drivers. Rising fuel prices, as well as improvements in extraction technology, such as "hydrofracking," have pumped up several small-town economies. Several of these areas have also grown because of increases in the service sector, including amenities for retirees and tourists.

One of the most surprising findings is that almost half of the towns on the list come from one state: Oklahoma, which is home to cities with low unemployment and unusually high job growth for their size. While these towns do not share the same economic drivers, both Enid and McAlester rely heavily on drilling, mining and the military.

24/7 Wall St. used Bureau of Labor Statistics data on micropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). These are regions with an urban center that has a population of at least 10,000, but less than 50,000. We identified the cities that have had the greatest increase in total employment between 2001 and 2010. We then narrowed the list to towns with current unemployment rates under 7.0%. There are nine cities that satisfied this criteria. 24/7 then looked for the reasons that these places enjoyed employment success despite their relatively small sizes.

These are the nine small towns with big opportunities:

9. Lebanon, New Hampshire-Vermont

Increase in Employment (2001-2010): 3,977

Pct. Change in Employment (2001-2010): +9%

Unemployment Rate (2010): 4.1%

Increase in Labor Force (2001-2010): 12%

The Lebanon, New Hampshire MSA is made up of three counties, Orange and Windsor in Vermont, and Grafton in New Hampshire. At the center of the MSA is Lebanon, New Hampshire. In 2010, the area had an unemployment rate of just 4.1%, compared to rates of between 5.5% and 6.7% in the two states over the year. Near Lebanon is Hanover, home to Dartmouth College, which has recently expanded its presence in the town. Additionally the area, which also includes White River Junction on the Vermont side, is near the intersection of two major highways, Interstates 89 and 91, and is home to a healthy retail sector.

-- Find jobs in Lebanon

8. Enid, Oklahoma

Increase in Employment (2001-2010): 4,172

Pct. Change in Employment (2001-2010): +16%

Unemployment Rate (2010): 4.9%

Increase in Labor Force (2001-2010): 18%

The Enid MSA includes all of Garfield County, located in the upper central part of Oklahoma. Enid, the largest city in the area, is known as the wheat capital of Oklahoma, and has one of the three largest grain-storage industries in the country. Enid's economy has benefited from the rise of commodity prices -- including wheat -- over the past ten years. In 2006, Enid was featured on Good Morning America as one of the top five up-and-coming areas in the U.S. According to Enidnews.com, the area has seen several major sources of growth in recent years, including a National Guard center at the Vance Air Force Base. The area also has a oil and gas industry.

-- Find jobs in Enid

7. Carlsbad-Artesia, New Mexico

Increase in Employment (2001-2010): 4,750

Pct. Change in Employment (2001-2010): +21%

Unemployment Rate (2010): 6%

Increase in Labor Force (2001-2010): 23%

The Carlsbad-Artesia MSA is made up of Eddy County, New Mexico, which is on the eastern side of the state's border with Mexico. The area is an increasingly popular tourist destination and home to the famous Carlsbad Caverns. It has seen the addition of 4,750 workers in the past ten years, which works out to one job added for every four in 2001. "Things are picking up," said Jeff Campbell, marketing director of the Carlsbad Department of Development. Campbell added that "unemployment continues to decrease, and more new companies are looking at Carlsbad because of our strong economy." According to Rober Defer, CEO of the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce, the area is also buoyed by oil drilling and booming potash mines.

-- Find jobs in Carlsbad

6. McAlester, Oklahoma

Increase in Employment (2001-2010): 4,845

Pct. Change in Employment (2001-2010): +28%

Unemployment Rate (2010): 6.8%

Increase in Labor Force (2001-2010): 32%

McAlester, Oklahoma added nearly 5,000 jobs between 2001 and 2010 -- an increase of 28% in total employment. The biggest employer in the region is the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, the only maximum security prison in the state. State inmates have increased by 2,500 since 2001. According to Tanaye Harvanek, CEO of the McAlester Chamber of Commerce, all criminals convicted in the state who require maximum security must go to McAlester. Harvanek also noted that the region has a booming hotel industry, which she attributes to McAlester's central location in the country. The town, which has a population of 18,000, has 23 hotels.

-- Find jobs in McAlester

5. Gillette, Wyoming

Increase in Employment (2001-2010): 5,041

Pct. Change in Employment (2001-2010): +24%

Unemployment Rate (2010): 6%

Increase in Labor Force (2001-2010): 28%

According to a report issued by Policom Corporation, Gillette, Wyoming had the second-strongest economy among all MSAs in 2010 -- and ranked third in 2011. The area, located in Campbell County in the northeastern part of the state, has grown in population from 33,698 in 2000 to 43,967 in 2010. The area has booming coal and natural gas industries -- Gillette's Powder River Basin Coal Mine is one of the larges coal-mining areas in the country.

-- Find jobs in Gillette

4. Tahlequah, Oklahoma

Increase in Employment (2001-2010): 5,134

Pct. Change in Employment (2001-2010): +28%

Unemployment Rate (2010): 6.1%

Increase in Labor Force (2001-2010): 31%

Tahlequah, Oklahoma is in the eastern part of the state and is the population center of Cherokee County. More than a third of its residents are Native American, and the area serves as the capital of the Cherokee Nation, whose total employment has jumped by 200% over the past decade, according to David Moore, head of the Tahlequah Chamber of Commerce. Tahlequah's third largest employer, the Tahlequah City Hospital has increased headcount from 228 employees in 1999 to 803 employees this year. Northeastern State University, the fourth-largest school in Oklahoma, is also in Tahlequah, and is one of its biggest employers. According to Moore,Staff employment has increased in excess of 10%. Moore also reports a significant increase in the number of retirees that have moved to the area, up by at least 15%.

-- Find jobs in Talequah

3. Lexington Park, Maryland

Increase in Employment (2001-2010): 5,704

Pct. Change in Employment (2001-2010): +13%

Unemployment Rate (2010): 6.3%

Increase in Labor Force (2001-2010): 16%

The Lexington Park MSA consists of St. Mary's County, Maryland's southernmost county west of the Chesapeake Bay. Policom identifies Lexington Park as having the fifth-strongest economy among the 576 micropolitan statistical areas in the country. The area has seen rapid growth, primarily as a result of continued expansion at the Patuxent Naval Air Base, which fuels the local economy. Several bases were consolidated in the mid-to-late 90&rsquos, and the area is still growing as a result. Between 2001 and 2010, the Lexington Park region added more than 5,700 jobs. Several areas in the county have been designated as "state enterprise zones" -- areas in which the state provides unique incentives for regional businesses, usually in the form of tax credits.

-- Find jobs in Lexington Park

2. Williston, North Dakota

Increase in Employment (2001-2010): 6,409

Pct. Change in Employment (2001-2010): +60%

Unemployment Rate (2010): 1.7%

Increase in Labor Force (2001-2010): 59%

Among all the MSAs in the country, only four had unemployment rates decline between 2001 and 2010. Williston, North Dakota is one of these. Between 2001 and 2010, the area's employment increased by 6,409, or 60%, and unemployment dropped from 2.3% to 1.7%. The Williston MSA consists of Williams County, North Dakota, located in the northwest part of the state. The area has seen job growth primarily as a result of its oil and natural gas resources, which are part of the Williston Basin. Hydrofracking has improved natural gas extraction from the region, which is part of the Bakken Shale Formation, and a pipeline is being built from a processing plant in the south of the county to Illinois.

-- Find jobs in Williston

1. Ardmore, Oklahoma

Increase in Employment (2001-2010): 6,654

Pct. Change in Employment (2001-2010): +27%

Unemployment Rate (2010): 5.5%

Increase in Labor Force (2001-2010): 29%

No MSA with healthy employment added more jobs in the past decade than Ardmore, Oklahoma. Since 2001, the region, which includes all of Carter and Love counties, added more than 6,600 jobs, a 27% increase in total employment. While Ardmore lost big employer Circuit City in early 2009, the Michelin plant, which is the city ' s biggest employer, has been expanding for several years. The plant has added 500 workers 2009.

-- Find jobs in Ardmore

Next:Employing America Starts With Us

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