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States with Best & Worst Job Growth

Here's the good news: Job growth in February rose to its highest level in two and half years, according to Gallup pollsters. But you might want to curb your enthusiasm a bit: Even with the uptick, the pace of new jobs creation is less than half the rate back in January 2008. Add in yesterday's estimate from economist Mark Zandi that the Republican's proposed federal budget cuts could cost us 700,000 jobs and we're not exactly out of the unemployment woods.

Still, the latest jobs report card is mildly encouraging, and offers some guidance for job hunters. Gallup's survey asks individuals whether their employer is hiring or firing. In February, 30 percent of respondents said the boss was adding new jobs, and 18 percent reported more firing. That net +12 reading isn't anywhere near enough to make a sizable dent in the 9 percent unemployment rate - but it sure is better than the -1 reading from last January and the -5 in March 2009.

Dig a layer below the national data and you get a far more nuanced picture of where the opportunities are.

States with the Best Job Growth
For all of 2010, the states with the best net reading of job hiring minus job firing reports were:

  • North Dakota (+ 29)
  • D.C. (+25)
  • South Dakota (+21)
  • Alaska (+19)
  • Arkansas (+17)
The presence of North Dakota and Alaska is an argument for acquiring some natural resource-related skills, as both states are riding the big jump in energy demand. That's a trend that isn't likely to abate in 2011, given the turmoil in the Mideast. Resource-rich Texas (+ 14 ) and Oklahoma (+14) also show up in the top 10.

But don't expect the District of Columbia to stay at the top of the list. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, about one-third of the 22,000 increase in D.C employment last year was government jobs. With federal payrolls clearly on the legislative chopping block, D.C. could have a hard time holding onto its top spot.

States with the Worst Job Growth

  • Nevada (-6)
  • New Jersey (-2)
  • California (0)
  • Oregon (+2)
  • Connecticut (+2)
Nevada's continuing economic woes (unemployment is running at 14.5 percent) are pretty closely tied to the continuing real estate slump. About 70 percent of the state's employment losses in 2010 occurred in the construction sector.

New Jersey was the only other state that failed to register a positive job-growth reading. Gallup attributes the poor showing to the state's dependence on financial-sector jobs - yet according to the BLS New Jersey's financial-related employment grew from 249,000 to 253,000 in 2010. The real culprit for New Jersey's weak job market will come as no surprise to anyone who has been following Gov. Chris Christie (though his frequent national media coverage makes him hard to miss): It's all about government jobs. According to the BLS, New Jersey's government payrolls dropped by 29,000 to 622,000 jobs at year-end 2010.

Most Improved
Those lists of best and worst are informative, but let's borrow from the investing adage that you want to invest in tomorrow's winner, not today's hot pick. Here is Gallup's list of the states that saw the biggest improvement in full-year 2010 job growth compared with the previous year:

  • Michigan (+20)
  • D.C. (+18)
  • North Dakota (+15)
  • Ohio (+14)
  • Delaware (+14)
Eminem's Super Bowl ad for Chrysler, extolling the grit of Detroit, could stand in for a state anthem as well. It's encouraging to see that both Michigan (with an 11.7 percent unemployment rate) and Ohio (10.7 percent unemployment) seem to be heading in the right direction. Now what's needed is a turbo-charged jolt to the pace of growth in every state. While Warren Buffett makes an uplifting case for America's long-term future in his recent letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, it's going to be interesting to see how the budget and deficit wrangling in Washington impacts the short-term economic climate.

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