April 7, 2014

Study: Happiest Small Cities

10 Small Cities with the Happiest Workers
Read more about Can Money Buy Happiness

Does this version of a day in the life of an unhappy worker sound familiar? You drag yourself out of bed at 6 a.m. and sit in traffic for an hour while you listen to off-color morning-radio DJs named Crazy Al and Goober. When you finally get to work, you think about how little money you're making and that you can't get a job anywhere else, because there are no good job openings where you live. Before you know it, your boss starts giving you a hard time and has you making copies. Then, of course, the copier jams for the 9,000th time.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, in some towns in America - particularly small ones - folks might not even be able to relate to your unhappiness. That’s because there are places where the commutes aren’t bad, the money’s better, and the copiers break less often. We wanted to know where they are - and we bet you do, too.

Fortunately, you don’t have to live in a big city to get those shrunken commutes. Turns out that small towns – which we defined as those as with 250,000 residents or fewer – offer a trove of work happiness, as long as you know where to look. Here’s what our research turned up.

Study Methodology

From our perspective, five things make for happy workers:

  • The freedom to get another job if the current one isn’t good
  • A short commute
  • A decent wage
  • A lack of poor office equipment
  • A non-nitwit boss

First, we looked at unemployment rates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We figured that a low unemployment rate means it’s relatively easy to find another job. Turns out that bosses in Bismarck, N.D., better be nice to their employees - the city has the lowest unemployment rate in the United States (2.8%). Employees in Yuma, Ariz., (27%), are pretty much stuck.

Few things are worse than sitting in traffic for two hours every day, which is why we looked at the most recent U.S. Census data for daily commute time and gave it twice the weight in our scoring. The national average is 22.3 minutes, but if you live in Grand Forks, N.D., you’re at work in just 14.5 minutes.

Work is an exchange of time and expertise in return for money, so we looked at the most recent U.S. Census data for annual income and benefits. This measure also gets twice the weight in our scoring. We found out people in Laredo, Tex., need a raise - they’re last at $14,050 per year.

We all have stories about that one copier that hated us, or that one computer from hell, or that fax machine from 1995 that your boss mysteriously insists on keeping. Equipment like that is always on the fritz, and that fuels demand for people to repair it. So we figured that the more people who fall within the Bureau of Labor Statistics “Computer, Automated Teller, and Office Machine Repairers” occupation category per 10,000 residents in a particular area, the higher the presence of poorly functioning office equipment. We gave this measure – what we call our “Frustration Index” – half the weight, because a lame boss, bad pay, or a lousy commute usually outweighs constant paper jams or pleas for toner. The most recent data shows that Peoria, Ill., and Wichita Falls, Tex., are some of the most frustrating places when it comes to office equipment.

Last, but not least, on the list of things that make work bearable is a nice boss. That’s hard to measure, but nothing raises the “nitwit” red flag like a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This federal agency keeps track of all of the charges involving sexual harassment and retaliation, as well as racial, national origin, religious, age, and disability discrimination.

With all those metrics in mind, we came up with this the list of small cities with the happiest workers. Pack your bags, and start typing that resignation letter now.

10 Happiest Small Cities

10. Billings, MT

  • Unemployment rate: 3.9%
  • Average commute: 19.8 minutes
  • Average wages: $26,768
  • Frustration index: 6.96
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.02

With lots of available jobs and decent wages, Billings comes in at #10. The town has the longest commute time on the list, though, and the office equipment there hates people. Having the lowest EEOC claims per capita helps a lot, though.

Did you know?
The healthcare industry is the largest private employer sector in Billings.

9. Fairbanks, AK

  • Unemployment rate: 5.4%
  • Average commute: 19.5 minutes
  • Average wages: $31,507
  • Frustration index: 5.12
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.14

Fairbanks has the highest unemployment rate on our list, which makes it relatively harder for workers to walk away from a job. And with an average commute time of 19.5 minutes, they might have to walk far too (and probably in the snow). The city has one of the highest average incomes on our list, but the relatively high level of evil office equipment brings it down several notches.

Did you know?
Commuters in Fairbanks need to winterize their cars with engine block heaters, battery pad heaters, and oil pan heaters in order for their cars to run in subzero weather.

8. Rapid City, SD

  • Unemployment rate: 3.8%
  • Average commute: 17.8 minutes
  • Average wages: $26,023
  • Frustration index: 5.54
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.08

The Dakotas definitely win the list for happiest workers, and that includes Rapid City. The city’s unemployment rate is just a point above Bismarck, N.D., which has the lowest unemployment rate in the country. Good wages and good bosses who know how to behave also make Rapid City a solid choice.

7. Midland, TX

  • Unemployment rate: 2.8%
  • Average commute: 19.2 minutes
  • Average wages: $31,602
  • Frustration index: 3.65
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.36

Coming in at #7 is the west Texas town of Midland. Two things kept Midland from ranking higher on the list: a relatively long commute time and a relatively high number of EEOC claims per capita. But the wages are some of the highest on the list, and the office equipment is the friendliest around.

6. Dubuque, IA

  • Unemployment rate: 4.1%
  • Average commute: 16.8 minutes
  • Average wages: $25,920
  • Frustration index: 5.33
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.05

With lots of available jobs and decent commute times, Dubuque comes in at #6. The town has the lowest per capita income on the list, but the bosses seem nice.

Did you know?
The largest employer in Dubuque is John Deere, which employs 2,400 people.

5. Grand Forks, ND

  • Unemployment rate: 3.5%
  • Average commute: 14.5 minutes
  • Average wages: $26,007
  • Frustration index: 5.08
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.11

The oil boom in the Dakotas has brought tons of jobs to this area, which makes it relatively easy for workers in Grand Forks to walk away from a job and find another one. And with a commute time of just 14.5 minutes (the lowest in the country), they won’t have to go far. The city has the highest average income of the cities on our list, but the relatively high level of evil office equipment brings it to #5.

Did you know?
Fast food jobs in some areas began paying around $15 an hour after the oil boom hit, according to one CNN report.

4. Sioux Falls, SD

  • Unemployment rate: 3.1%
  • Average commute: 18.1 minutes
  • Average wages: $27,191
  • Frustration index: 4.38
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.08

Coming in at #4 is Sioux Falls. Workers here have it all: low unemployment, a reasonable commute, OK wages, and some of the best bosses in the country (from an EEOC perspective). With people-friendly photocopiers to boot, this place seems to be a good place for finding a job that won’t destroy your soul.

3. Bismarck, ND

  • Unemployment rate: 2.8%
  • Average commute: 19.5 minutes
  • Average wages: $30,702
  • Frustration index: 6.44
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.11

North of Sioux Falls is Bismarck, which now has some of the highest wages in the country. Looks like the bosses know you have options, too. With such a seller’s market, it’s no surprise that this town lands on our list of small cities with happiest workers.

2. Fargo, ND

  • Unemployment rate: 3.0%
  • Average commute: 17.2 minutes
  • Average wages: $28,997
  • Frustration index: 8.62
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.11

Go 2.5 hours east of Bismarck, and you’ll hit Fargo - “Home of the Unhappy Office Equipment.” If you can withstand toner explosions and jammed shredders, you’ll be rewarded handsomely. By now you’ve probably noticed that the Dakotas are worth thinking about if you’re looking for a place to work and still have a life.

1. Rochester, MN

  • Unemployment rate: 3.8%
  • Average commute: 18.5 minutes
  • Average wages: $31,897
  • Frustration index: 3.76
  • EEOC claims per capita: 0.19

Rochester, Minn., tops our list. With some of the highest wages in the country and a low unemployment rate, Rochester offers the freedom that is so elusive in other parts of the country - freedom from a long commute, from being stuck in a job you hate, from bad bosses, and from crashing computers. Now that sounds like a good place to us.

Did you know?
The Mayo Clinic and IBM alone employ over 35,000 people in Rochester.


We evaluated a pool of 182 small cities to prove find those that are hosting exciting careers and more work-life balance, which you just can’t get if you’re spending a big chunk of your day in your car or on the subway. If you’re burned out from the big city drives and your nitwit boss, a town on this list might be for you.

Tina O is a contributing writer at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and reviews website. Write to Tina O at tina@creditdonkey.com. Our data-driven analysis has been recognized by major news outlets across the country and has helped families make savvy decisions. (read more)

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