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Top States 2018 highlights an epic battle for business and jobs

Scott Cohn
The Amazon HQ2 decision gets all the attention, but there is a far larger war for skilled labor, pitting state against state across the US. There are not enough unemployed workers in the country to fill current job openings.

The war between the states for business and jobs has never been more intense. The high-profile fight for Amazon 's $5 billion HQ2 second headquarters leads the pack, but there are thousands of smaller site selection skirmishes playing out across the country. And it's never been more complicated, thanks to worker shortages, immigration crackdowns, trade tensions and tax reforms.

Then there are this November's elections, with 36 states choosing governors.

It is time once again for America's Top States for Business to put it all in perspective. Our 12th annual study of state competitiveness is coming soon.

Every year since 2007, our exclusive study has ranked all 50 states based on their scores in ten categories of competitiveness. This year's study subjects the states to 64 metrics across those categories. Our tried and true methodology aims to rate the states based on the attributes that matter most to business. To do that, we scour every state's economic development marketing materials to see what they are pitching to business. The more frequently a selling point appears, the more weight it carries in our study.

This year's most important category, yet again, is Workforce — measuring which states have the most abundant, educated, and productive workers. For the past several years, companies have been complaining about their inability to find skilled employees and the problem is worse than ever. A recent study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute warned that absent any improvement in the skills gap, nearly two-thirds of the manufacturing job openings over the next decade will go unfilled.

Other statistics paint an even more startling picture. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says employers had 6.7 million job openings in April, the most since the agency began keeping track. But only about 6.1 million people are unemployed. In other words, even if every one of those unemployed workers had the skills employers were looking for — and they do not — there would not be enough people to fill the jobs.


State competition for workers is intense

No wonder states are touting their workforces like never before.

"Georgia's workforce is helping industries thrive all across the state," the Peach State's economic development website proclaims.

Other states are going to extremes in order to beef up their workforces and ease the shortages. Wisconsin, which is enjoying record low unemployment, has been running ads in neighboring Illinois, recruiting skilled millennials to move north and fill the void.

One such ad shows somber young commuters on a Chicago "L" train.

"An hour commute, or an hour with friends?" the ad asks. "In Wisconsin, the average commute is less than 20 minutes!"

"The Chicago market is close to us, and it has the capacity and the potential to draw workers from," said Tricia Braun, chief operating officer of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. "It's marketing the lifestyle and the cost of living advantages that we have."

Fortunately, there is a way for employers, employees, and just about everyone else to vet those kinds of claims.

Our Top States study uses hard data — not opinion surveys — to measure things like Workforce, Infrastructure (including commuting times), and Quality of Life. We also evaluate Cost of Doing Business, Economy, Education, Technology and Innovation, Business Friendliness, Access to Capital, and Cost of Living.

And new this year, we are giving the states letter grades in each category to show how they perform relative to the competition.

But our annual report includes far more than just numbers and letters. We'll look at the unique issues facing the states this year, from labor shortages to health-care policy to the changing dynamics resulting from the new tax law. What gives some states the edge, and leaves others bringing up the rear?

Of course, we want to hear from you. The hashtag, as always, is #TopStates.