There's no question the United States has a jobs crisis. The unemployment rate stands at 9.1%, millions of workers have been unemployed for more than a year, and prospects for the overall employment situation don't seem to be getting any better.
But take a closer look at a state-by-state view of unemployment and you can find parts of the country where unemployment is actually lower than the more typical unemployment rate of 4% to 6%, approaching what economists refer to as "full employment."
For today's job seekers, the biggest question may not be if you want a new job, but where are you willing to go to find one?
Want a Job? Head North
Regions of the country have been affected by the economic downturn in different ways over the past several years:
In the Midwest, bankruptcies at General Motors (GM) and Chrysler left Detroit and much of the surrounding areas of Michigan for dead.
California's high cost of living and budget problems have led to a housing bust and massive budget deficit, leaving many public employees without work.
But look to the Northern states, and you'll see a big difference in employment rates compared to states in the South and slightly less, where unemployment is actually getting worse. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' regional and state unemployment release, New England and East North Central, stretching from Maine to Wisconsin, were two of the fastest regions to cut unemployment over the past year.
Unemployment Rate August 2010
Unemployment Rate August 2011
East North Central
East South Central
West South Central
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The two South Central regions, where unemployment is still getting worse, stretch from Alabama and Kentucky across to Oklahoma and Texas. One of the surprises of this data is that the East North Central region, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, is improving relatively quickly despite being one of the worst hit by the recession.
Dirty Work Is Still Work
There are plenty of areas of the country where jobs are available for those willing to do the work. They aren't near beaches, the weather isn't beautiful year round, and the pay isn't all that great. But a job is a job, right?
If you're willing to do some dirty work, Nebraska (with an unemployment rate of 4.2%), North Dakota (3.5%), and South Dakota (4.7%) are looking for workers and are the only states in the country where unemployment is below 5%. Look a little harder, and Wyoming (5.8%) and Iowa (6.1%) aren't far from "full employment" as well.
A major reason for the strong employment in these states is their reliance on agriculture as a source of revenue. Even as the recession got worse, people were still eating and China was still growing and demanding food, and companies needed workers to fill demand. In addition, newfound energy resources have boosted prospects in some of these states.
It also doesn't hurt that in these regions the cost of living is much lower -- and companies don't have to pay as much to give employees a good standard of living. In Fargo, N.D., you can find a slew of three-bedroom homes for less than $150,000, something that would be impossible in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco.
The New State of Employment
But despite these regional opportunities, the biggest problems with our employment may be the sticky nature of employment in general. It takes a long time for people to adjust to a new normal in our employment needs. Education and skills don't change overnight, families can't be uprooted at the tip of a hat, and moving across the country is a cultural adjustment as well.
In two of the fastest growing industries where workers are needed, oil shale drilling and solar manufacturing and installation, the necessary skills aren't often possessed by those who are currently unemployed.
An unemployed homebuilder in San Diego can't just walk into a job at an oil and gas company or refinery, just like an unemployed school teacher isn't qualified to install solar panels.
Are You Willing to Pack Your Bags, or Not?
While it isn't a reasonable solution for many people to uproot families and embark on a new career, for those willing to make the life change, opportunities are available. North Dakota has gone as far as sending government officials and businesses leaders to the Minneapolis area in an effort to recruit qualified workers.
There are certainly places beyond the Midwest where skilled workers are in demand. But you might have to get your hands dirty this time around. In other words, the suit and tie of the banking boom and bust may have to be replaced by a warm set of Carhartts and a pair of steel-toed shoes.
Motley Fool contributor Travis Hoium doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned. You can follow Travis on Twitter at @FlushDrawFool and check out his personal stock holdings. The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America and Citigroup. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of General Motors.
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