Best places to get ahead

Move to New York, and you could become an investment-banking millionaire. Head for Los Angeles for a chance at an eight-figure Hollywood paycheck. Or go prospecting in San Francisco for dot-com gold.

Of course, precious few movers and shakers have the perfect combination of skill, drive and lots of luck to become gazillionaires.

So what about those of us simply looking for a solid job with a handsome paycheck?

Manhattan, Hollywood and Silicon Valley may boast some of the richest residents in the country, but these hugely competitive places don’t necessarily boast the best job prospects for the average American.

If you want a good shot at getting ahead, look to Stafford County, Va., outside Washington, D.C.; Forsyth County, outside Atlanta; or Delaware County, outside Columbus, Ohio. These are the communities where income growth and job growth are the highest.

To determine the best places to get ahead, compiled income and job data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. We looked at every county in the U.S., starting with data from the year 2000, and ranked where median income was rising the quickest. We limited our list to counties where the median income was at least $75,000 in order to highlight places where people are well-off and getting ahead, as opposed to counties that went from low income to average income.

Then, to further highlight places where paychecks are earned — as opposed to places that are bedroom communities or retreats for the rich — we took into account job-growth data going back to 2000. That allowed us to measure where jobs and local economies have boomed.

The places that experienced prolonged income and job booms since 2000 are often satellite economies of larger cities. Within a metropolitan area, the central city is typically the driving force of the economy. But as suburban counties develop, they often turn into secondary economic centers with their own industry and jobs.

In Stafford County, for example, the local economy has become increasingly robust. The county’s diminishing investment in manufacturing through the 1990s transitioned gently into an information- and consulting-based economy.

Stafford County has a proven ability to land federal jobs and companies with government contracts, as well as to attract businesses from all over the country, due largely to business incentives. A friendly tax and regulatory environment has also helped boost the county’s median income by 27% since 2000, and jobs have increased by almost 6% a year over the same period of time.

The Washington, D.C., metro area, especially northern Virginia, dominates our list, since many of the Stafford characteristics are typical for the area. Those qualities have also consistently landed Virginia at the top of the Forbes Best States for Business list.

In the Northeast, the lone representative was Sussex County, N.J. It’s one of the few corners of the New York metro area where jobs and incomes have been consistently strong since 2000.