Metro Phoenix has finished at the top — again — in a national study that ranks counties by their ability to attract and retain high-quality workers and other economic-development factors.
Maricopa County finished first in the study by labor-analytics firm Emsi, beating out runner-up Clark County, Nevada, home of Las Vegas, and dozens of counties from Texas and Florida. The study evaluated counties in terms of migration, overall job growth, skilled-job growth, educational attainment, regional competitiveness and annual job openings per capita.
Maricopa County placed second overall last year but has finished first in three of the five years the study was conducted. The latest version analyzed 601 counties across the U.S., including nine of 15 in Arizona.
“Perhaps what is most striking about Maricopa’s economy is the breadth and depth of industries,” the report said. “It’s reasonable to assume Maricopa is benefiting from a feedback loop: existing talent attracts firms and investment, which in turn attracts more talent.”
Positive recent developments for metro Phoenix cited in the report include Intel’s expansion of its Fab 42 factory in Chandler. Maricopa County’s growth as a leader in advanced manufacturing and semiconductors has fueled a double-digit increase in skilled jobs, the Emsi researchers said.
Pinal, just south of Phoenix, was the second-highest ranked Arizona county, in 29th place. Pima County finished 91st and Yavapai County came in 97th.
Pinal, Pima and Yavapai Counties have gained ground in the rankings, though Coconino County and Flagstaff, highly dependent on tourism, have “gone in the wrong direction,” the report said.
Coconino was the lowest rated of the nine Arizona counties evaluated, in 418th place overall, three spots worse than Cochise County.
Maricopa County gaining traction
Metro Phoenix scored especially well in migration, overall number of jobs, skilled occupations and regional competitiveness. Most of the data used in the report were updated through 2019 and thus don’t completely reflect the coronavirus pandemic.
Chris Camacho, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, said Maricopa County has become more competitive against other areas of the country for corporate expansions and relocations.
For attracting headquarters and technology operations, metro Phoenix often finds itself competing against Dallas, Atlanta and Austin, Texas, Camacho said. For manufacturing, e-commerce and supply chain operations, the key rivals include places in Nevada, Utah and California.
“Twelve years ago, we’d struggle against the likes of Dallas and Austin,” Camacho said. “Now we’re as competitive as we’ve ever been against those places.”
COVID-19 having an impact
Among more recent trends, remote work and a modest outmigration from large cities have accelerated owing to the COVID-19 outbreak, the report added. “The pandemic is forcing communities to respond to shifting migration and telework and (their) impact on talent attraction.”
Despite its top overall ranking, Maricopa County’s labor market still has problems. In particular, many of the new jobs created in metro Phoenix don’t pay especially well, said Lee McPheters, an economist at Arizona State University.
“One problem, as well as an attractive feature, is that we have lower wages in Arizona than in the U.S. overall,” he said. “The study kind of misses that.”
McPheters also questioned Maricopa County’s relatively high ranking for educational attainment (94th best overall), attributing it partly to well-educated workers and even retirees moving in from other areas.
Counties were ranked by an index that equally weighted migration, overall job growth, skilled job growth (positions requiring advanced education or lengthy training), educational attainment (of at least an associates degree), annual job openings per capita and the relatively vague category of regional competitiveness.
Large counties generally lag
Maricopa County and Clark County, the two top finishers, were among the few larger urban areas to rank highly. Rounding out the top five were: Collin County and Williamson County, both in Texas, and Riverside County, California.
Eight of the 10 most populous counties nationally ranked below average.
“Large metros are losing some of their glitz while midsize and small markets are becoming more attractive options,” the Emsi report said. “These were trends that existed (before) but which the pandemic has accelerated. Meanwhile, remote work, allowing workers to migrate with relative ease, has made it all possible.”