Want hot job markets? Try 'sleepy' college towns.

Clay Caricofe, it seemed, couldn't ask for better cities to launch a fast-track career in graphic arts: Atlanta and Phoenix.

But those cities, the ones that for years have reigned supreme on job-growth lists, were precisely the ones he abandoned not long after art school.

The destination of his dreams: Charlottesville, Va., where he works at a fast-growing software firm.

"It's just less stressful. You don't have to deal with noise and traffic. I can bike to work," Mr. Caricofe says.

Less stressful, perhaps. But Charlottesville is growing beyond the bucolic university town of Thomas Jefferson's vision.

In fact, the cities with the reddest-hot job prospects, judging by low unemployment and rapid population growth, aren't Sun Belt behemoths like Phoenix, nor are they in Silicon Valley or Puget Sound. The real jewels in America's economic crown are characterized more by charming brick storefronts and weathered university spires. They're places like Ann Arbor, Mich.; Columbia, Mo.; College Station, Texas; and Charlottesville.

They are small to medium-size cities with a mix of high- and low-tech industry. Flagship state universities form the base of jobs, skills, and culture. And to escape the hassles of the modern megalopolis, people are flocking to them like squirrels to birdseed.

"Life in a small college town can be really nice. That amenity of a university attracts people," says Toni Horst, a regional economist at the Dismal Scientist Web site.

Indeed, of the seven US metro areas with the lowest jobless rates in February, six were small to medium-size university towns.

Anatomy of a boom

To see how explosive growth unfolds in one of these new boomtowns, consider Charlottesville, home to 40,000 people and eight venture capital firms. It shows the appeal of these cities - and the problems that accompany lightning-speed growth.

Nestled in the Piedmont region of central Virginia, Charlottesville has long been anchored by the University of Virginia, the post-presidency child of Jefferson. Of the city's 85,000 jobs, 20,000 are with the university, including its hospital.

Then a funny thing happened. In the 1980s, manufacturing companies were lured by low rents and proximity to Washington (two hours) and Richmond (one hour). Next came a wave of high-tech companies, some started by people tied to the university, others picking the area for its educated workforce and colonial charm.

Add an influx of retirees and new workers to staff these companies, and you get a 14 percent population rise from 1990 to 1998. You also get stunningly low unemployment - 1.4 percent in February, second lowest in America.

Boxer Learning is one of the reasons why. The educational software firm was founded in 1995 with a handful of employees. Now, Caricofe is one of 60 staffers scattered through three buildings on the downtown pedestrian mall.

Its main office is an industrial-chic renovation of a centuries-old building that was most recently a carpet shop. When you stand inside, the only thing to separate it from a loft in New York's Silicon Alley is the syrupy Southern drawl of some - but far from all - employees.

For recruiting manager Monique Weston, who came to Charlottesville not quite three years ago, the city's smallness is more a selling point than a drawback as she tries to hire new staff away from bigger high-tech areas.

"I've had cover letters that say, 'I'll do whatever, I just want to work in Charlottesville,' " Ms. Weston says. "It's often people who have been in big cities and are tired of the price and bustle."

But the boom in cities like Charlottesville goes well beyond trendy tech start-ups. And it can cause its share of frustration.

"My biggest problem right now is finding space for all the companies that want to come here," says Aubrey Watts, the city's director of economic development.

And just down the pedestrian mall from Boxer Learning is Baggby's Gourmet Sandwiches, where owner Mike LaPanta struggles just to keep the shop staffed.

"It's difficult to find people, and once they're on board, it's difficult to retain them," he says. He has boosted pay well above minimum wage and offered a health plan, hoping to keep staff. "We run ads in the paper, but get no response."

Worker-retention blues

Recently, Mr. LaPanta hired a young man who worked for three weeks before taking a break one afternoon and never coming back. He left for higher-paying work.

There are similar problems next door at the Blue Ridge Country Store, where the aura of an 18th-century general store is used to hawk apricot-ginger mustard and two types of hummus.

To keep his son and prep-cook from going to work elsewhere, Dan Pribus has bribed him with 9-to-5 hours and the freedom to phone his girlfriend while he works. Meanwhile, Mr. Pribus works from 5:30 a.m. until late afternoon.

"A lot of retail stores will even hand out employment applications with sales receipts," says William Mezger, chief economist for the Virginia Employment Commission in Richmond.

Moreover, some worry that the influx of residents will create the very problems that people move here to avoid. Already, strip malls and chain restaurants make Highway 29 north of town look like most any suburban highway.

And some residents, mirroring complaints nationwide, worry the boom is helping white yuppie college graduates but not the poor and minorities. "For a city with a significant minority population, it can be very segregated. You rarely see any black people on the downtown mall. That's a little troubling," says law clerk David Turk.

Still, the benefits are apparent, says lifelong resident Mark Van Yahres. "During the mid-1980s, downtown was just a bunch of empty storefronts. In the last 10 or 15 years it's become this," he says, pointing to a bustling street scene.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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