A man explains the workings of a robotic drone at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference in Austin, Texas. The city's tech boom put Travis County at the top of Emsi's Talent Attraction Scorecard. Laura Buckman/Reuters

Some U.S. counties are clearly doing a better job of attracting and keeping skilled workers than others.

Economists have long documented the role of talent, or educated and skilled “human capital,” in driving urban growth. A wide range of studies have found that metros with large shares of college grads, such as San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Boston, and Seattle, have higher wages and incomes than others. Over the past decade or so, cities and mayors across the U.S. and the world have developed strategies to attract, retain, and harness talent.

Most previous research has focused on talent at the metro level, documenting the metros that lead and lag in talent attraction. But a recently released report from the economic modeling firm Emsi details talent attraction across U.S. counties.

In their newly released Talent Attraction Scorecard, Emsi rates and ranks more than 3,000 U.S. counties on a variety of measures—skilled job growth, overall job growth, annual job openings per capita, net migration, and regional competitiveness—for the period between 2011 and 2015. The study separates out 592 large U.S. counties (those with more than a 100,000 people) and 2,246 small U.S. counties (with 5,000 to 99,999 people).

The map below charts the key findings. Green indicates talent winners and red indicates talent laggards; the map also identifies the top 10 talent winners for large counties and small U.S. counties. It shows pockets of talent attraction—not just in the usual places on the East and West Coasts, such as the Bay Area, Pacific Northwest, and the Bos-Wash Corridor—but across the nation broadly. It also shows where talent attraction has lagged within what we commonly think of as leading talent hubs.

Talent Scorecard Heat Map

A detailed, interactive map of the Talent Scorecard is available online. (Emsi)

The two top winners among large counties are familiar. Travis County, Texas, home to the city of Austin, takes first place, and San Francisco County is second. But the remainder of the top 10 includes a mix of tech hubs, resource centers and even lower-wage service economies in the Sunbelt.

Harris County, home to Houston, is third. Santa Clara County, in the heart of Silicon Valley, is fourth, and King County, home to Seattle, is fifth. Maricopa County (Phoenix), Collin County in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metro, Clark County (Las Vegas), Mecklenburg County (Charlotte) and San Mateo County (also in the San Francisco metro area) complete the top ten. The list includes three counties in the Bay Area and three in Texas.

Top 10 Large U.S. Counties

Bottom 10 Large U.S. Counties

County Name


County Name


Travis County, TX


St. Clair County, IL


San Francisco County, CA


Montgomery County, MD


Harris County, TX


Allegheny County, PA


Santa Clara County, CA


Milwaukee County, WI


King County, WA


Wayne County, MI


Maricopa County, AZ


Philadelphia County, PA


Collin County, TX


Essex County, NJ


Clark County, NV


Fairfax County, VA


Mecklenburg County, NC


Cook County, IL


San Mateo County, CA


New York County, NY


The report also reinforces how expensive it can be to live in some of the top U.S. talent hubs.

When cost of living is taken into account, wages (measured as median hourly earnings) drop from $31.68 to $17.41 in San Francisco, from $33.89 to $23.87 in Santa Clara County (Silicon Valley), and from $27.33 to $22.22 in King County (Seattle).

In other places the adjustments are more modest, with cost-of-living adjusted wages dropping just slightly from $22.26 dollars to $21.61 in Travis County, Texas (Austin) and from $23.17 to $20.32 in Harris County, Texas (Houston).


The list of the bottom ten large counties is even more interesting, with some startling surprises. New York County (that is Manhattan) ranks dead last. Two counties in the D.C. metro area also number among the ten worst in talent attraction. Fairfax County, Virginia, a highly educated county in the D.C. metro area, is third from the bottom; and, Montgomery County, Maryland, another high-income, highly educated area outside D.C., is eighth. It may be that rising housing prices are keeping talent out of some of these increasingly expensive places that we think of as talent magnets. In fact, Kings County, New York (Brooklyn), Queens County, and Richmond County (Staten Island) rank much higher on Emsi’s talent attraction index.

The rest of the list is mainly made up of large counties in the Midwest and Rustbelt, including Cook County (Chicago), Philadelphia County, Wayne County (Detroit), Milwaukee County, Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), and St. Clair County, Illinois.

The next list shows the top and bottom 10 small counties for talent attraction. The top 10 are mainly counties in North Dakota, Texas, and Louisiana that benefited from the fracking and energy boom. The bottom 10 are mainly economically isolated counties in the Deep South or Appalachia.

Top 10 Small Counties

Bottom 10 Small Counties

County Name


County Name


Cameron County, LA


McDowell County, WV


McKenzie County, ND


Benton County, MS


Williams County, ND


Clay County, WV


Dimmit County, TX


Knott County, KY


Mountrail County, ND


Wise County, VA


La Salle County, TX


Boone County, WV


Stark County, ND


Camden County, NC


Lake County, TN


Humphreys County, MS


Kemper County, MS


Mingo County, WV


Karnes County, TX


Alexander County, IL


A big takeaway is that the concentration and attraction of talent at the county level is much more varied than it is at the metro level. The concentration of talent varies within leading and lagging U.S. metros. The reality is that high-talent U.S. metros have counties that are doing poorly on talent attraction; at the same time, lagging U.S. metros have counties that are doing relatively well. There are clear spikes of talent within metros. In this way, talent is fractal, with clear clusters and concentrations within metros as well as across them.

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