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Utah overtakes California in latest top performing U.S. cities index

market research salt lake county utah utah county weber county Mar 26, 2021

Utah has been a standout state in a wide slew of economic rankings over the last decade. The Provo-Orem metro, in particular, owned the top spot on Milken's Best-Performing Cities Index in 2018 and 2019, before dropping to the #2 spot in 2020. Now it's back at No. 1 for 2021. Two other Utah metros also earned top-10 slots this year, a clear sign that Utah has arguably navigated the pandemic better than any other state.

The Southern California-based think tank said they looked at how each metro handled the pandemic, what the job/wage market looks like, as well as high-tech growth, housing affordability, and average broadband access.

Utah's 2021 rankings? Provo-Orem came in 1st place. Salt Lake City came in 4th. And Ogden-Clearfield came in at number 9. Milken researches suggest that Utah fared so well in part by the fact that so many employees and businesses are fleeing California's economic downsides for a promising and much more affordable climate.

“The pandemic has had an outsized impact on cities where the economic effects of the current recession are exacerbated by high housing costs. By measuring for factors such as jobs, wages, and high-tech growth, the Best-Performing Cities Index offers analysis of how metro areas have fared based on the resilience of their local economy.

“And by incorporating data designed to gauge inclusivity, it provides important insights into how cities will be prepared to meet challenges and opportunities for future growth post-pandemic.”  - Kevin Klowden, executive director of the Milken Institute Center for Regional Economics and California Center

It's starting to look like the long-time promise of the Bay Area's tech sector is starting to lessen in its appeal because of pandemic-induced fallout. At least when compared to other, more affordable metros. People continue to move out in droves to markets like Arizona, Texas, and Utah.

California’s usual standouts, including (down from No. 1 last year) No. 24 San Francisco and No. 22 San Jose (down from No. 5 in 2020), dropped to Tier 2 of the index due to the high cost of housing and a strong negative shift in short-term job growth. This may indicate the outsized effect of the coronavirus pandemic on so-called ‘superstar cities.’" - Milken researchers

In a U.S. Census Bureau “metropolitan statistical area” study, Provo-Orem metro rose above other U.S. cities in part of its nation-leading job growth rates, expanding tech sector, and relatively affordable cost of living.


Provo ranked first in both one- and five-year job growth while also ranking highly in high-tech GDP concentration and the number of high-tech industries. Provo-Orem is a recipient of the tech sector’s outmigration from the expensive West Coast. It is a relatively new innovation center but offers a high quality of life and amenities in the mountain region ... with significantly lower costs than Silicon Valley," according to Milken researchers.

In past years, this study has not included housing affordability data. This was reflected in the results as all the expensive coastal markets were hit hardest. The Intermountain West thrived here as their cities tend to be more inclusive to all residents. This change was made as a result of the pandemic.

“The unique nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an inflection point. We have responded by modernizing the index to show which cities have built inclusive local economies. We did so by adding one- and five-year measures of housing affordability.

“These highlight the degree to which infrastructure improvements reflect economic performance, local job creation, and higher wages make prosperity more accessible for all of a metro area’s residents.” - Milken report

Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City saw one of the bigger jumps on this list, moving up 21 spots since last year and moving into the number 4 overall rank. SLC was praised for its business diversity, high wages, and consistent economic expansion.

“The (Salt Lake) region has experienced consistent employment growth — 3% growth for one year (11th in the country) and 15.5% for five years (28th in the country) — spanning a range of sectors. Most notably, Salt Lake City is home to a regional tech, finance and professional services hub.” -

If you look into the Salt Lake Counties' non-tech jobs as well, the worker base is promising. High-paying non-tech jobs helped secure its economic ranking. The report states that concentrations of middle-skill jobs in medical supply and service industry machinery manufacturing pay average annual salaries of $58,770 and $63,770 respectively.


North of Utah's capital is the Ogden-Clearfield metro. In 2020, Ogden's rank was 22nd in the Milken report. This year they were able to overtake 13 slots into the 9th place rank for best-performing-cities in the Nation. Milken researchers stated that northern Utah was one of the few cities that successfully fought the job struggles over the last year that came as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Ogden-Clearfield moved up to second place in short-term job growth, one of only a handful of large cities (and the only Tier 1 city) to achieve positive job growth over the last 12 months.

“Hill Air Force Base is an economic stabilizer, providing over 25,000 jobs with a payroll of almost $1.5 billion, and it pumps hundreds of millions more into the economy in construction and service contracts. The defense technology industry is a key driver in Ogden-Clearfield’s economy, as the Air Force supports innovation in the field.” - Milken report

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