Yes, the economy is much stronger than it was during the recession of the last decade. But no, we haven't fully recovered, at least as far as jobs are concerned. As of the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data, national unemployment stands at 7% of the workforce -- which hovers well above the trailing 10-year low of 4.4%. In spite of the relatively sluggish recovery in jobs, however, some states are pushing well ahead in terms of getting their residents employed. Here's a look at the top five.
1. North Dakota
The world's near-insatiable hunger for oil is putting dinner on many tables in this prairie state. A big chunk of a white-hot play in the current shale oil boom in the U.S., the Bakken, is located here. The extraction of fuel has fueled the economy of the state, driving its unemployment rate to the lowest (by far) in the country, at 2.6% for November (incidentally, brother South Dakota was no. 2, at 3.6%). Major Bakken players are oil exploration firms Continental Resources (NYSE: CLR ) , which leases a vast 1.2 million Bakken net acres, and Whiting Petroleum (NYSE: WLL ) , with just under 730,000 net acres. According to the BLS, the percent change from June 2012 to June 2013 was 3.2%. It was the only state posting growth above 3%.
Like North Dakota, Colorado can tip its hat to the oil and gas industry for much of its encouraging job growth. Although not as grand as the Bakken, the Niobara Shale is nonetheless a sprawling play, with much of it lying under the surface of the northeast part of the state. As a result, it has juiced employment in the area, particularly for people in Douglas and Weld counties (where jobs grew by 5.8% and 4.8%, respectively, over the past year). Oil is not the only sector pumping out work; the well-diversified economy also benefits from the presence of corporates with long employee rolls. One is Lockheed Martin, which has around 10,000 workers in the state. BLS figures show that the year-over-year percentage change for Colorado employment was 2.9%. The jobless rate, however, was relatively high, at 6.5% this past November.
Just behind neighboring Colorado with 2.8% employment growth, Utah's job creation has occurred across nearly every sector of its economy. In the one-year period ending this past November, the state had nearly a perfect score -- nine of the 10 private-sector industries tracked by the state's Department of Workforce Services registered increases. Particularly good performers were information (8.8% over the period), leisure/hospitality (6.2%), and natural resources (4.7%). Although Utah's top employers are public or academic entities (like Brigham Young University, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- i.e., the Mormons), big private companies have a healthy presence in the state. A major corporate employer is defense contractor L-3 Communications Holdings, which has planted the Western unit of its communication services division in the state's capital, Salt Lake City. Utah's unemployment rate stood at 4.3% in November.
Idaho is a fairly modest state, but the same can't really be said for its job growth. This advanced by 2.7% in the most recent one-year period tracked by the BLS, helping to push unemployment down to 6.1% of the workforce. Although long-standing industrial firms such as Boise Cascade remain big names in local commerce, the new economy is also well represented. One of the top employers in the state is semiconductor specialist Micron Technology, while peer company ON Semiconductor operates a manufacturing facility in the city of Pocatello.
As Texans will readily point out, there's nothing small about their state. This is especially true of its employed population, which at 11 million souls, is second only to California's 15.5 million. That's a lot of people at work, and the number has risen admirably -- the state is tied with Idaho at 2.7% total job growth over the June 2012-June 2013 period. Texas is famously one of the world capitals of the oil business, and as such it's benefiting from the sector's current boom. But tech is also strongly represented, particularly in and around the state capital of Austin. The now-private PC manufacturing giant Dell calls the area home, while Apple is busy building out a new 39-acre campus in the city. That should help continue to reduce the Texas jobless rate, which was 6.1% this past November.
Three companies loving the oil boom
The trend putting the oomph in employment in more than one of these states can also benefit you as an investor. Record oil and natural gas production is revolutionizing America's' energy position. Finding the right plays while historic amounts of capital expenditures are flooding the industry will pad your investment nest egg. For this reason, the Motley Fool is offering a comprehensive look at three energy companies set to soar during this transformation in the energy industry. To find out which three companies are spreading their wings, check out the special free report, "3 Stocks for the American Energy Bonanza." Don't miss out on this timely opportunity; click here to access your report -- it's absolutely FREE.