- The Washington Times - Friday, January 26, 2007

Fairfax County, Va., has become the economic center of the Washington area, generating professional and business management jobs at a substantially higher rate of pay than the rest of the region and the country, according to a Labor Department study released yesterday.

Fairfax’s success in attracting federal contracting dollars and becoming a magnet for top private employers stands out even in a region that generally has prospered and shared the benefits of having the three branches of the federal government.

The county generates high-paying jobs for software designers, lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers and other professionals at 2.57 times the rate of the rest of United States. It created nearly half the 230,000 such jobs that opened in the area between 1990 and 2005 — 103,925 new jobs, according to the Labor Department.

“Fairfax really is the hub which is driving the Washington area. This is no longer just a government town” centered on the District of Columbia, said Diane Nilsen, a Bureau of Labor Statistics economist who co-wrote the study.

However, she added that Fairfax County, like other area jurisdictions, continues to benefit from “recession-proof” federal spending.

Growth in professional jobs has been a key to economic success nationwide since the 1990s as the United States has evolved into a knowledge-based economy.

Coupling Fairfax’s outstanding performance with a solid showing by Arlington County, the District, Alexandria and Montgomery County at generating such jobs, the Washington area stood well above the rest of the nation’s 12 largest metropolitan areas.

Washington produces professional jobs at nearly twice the rate of the rest of the country, while its closest competitors — Detroit and Raleigh, N.C. — beat the national average by only a third, the study showed.

“Fairfax is a magnet — nationwide and worldwide,” said economist Gerald L. Perrins, the study’s other author. “This is the top rung. There is no other place to go” if you are a business or individual seeking high-paying work and customers brimming with discretionary income.

A “unique mix” of factors keeps Fairfax at the forefront, he said, which most likely includes a generally positive attitude toward growth and development, top quality public schools, low tax rates and a spigot of federal outsourcing funds — especially for defense, intelligence and homeland security — that has replaced the work done by a shrinking number of government workers.

The study’s findings dovetail with other recent reports showing Fairfax County and Washington-area households have among the highest incomes and educations in the country.

Fairfax achieved its central role in the past 15 years, when the share of professional workers there exploded to 21.6 percent of its job base — nearly twice the share held by federal workers. That trove of high-paying jobs, in turn, has served to attract top retailers and service companies from across the country and the world, as well as an army of service workers who benefit from free spending by Fairfax’s high-income households.

As a result, Fairfax generated more jobs in nearly every professional and business-management category than the Washington area’s other 21 counties and municipalities, the study showed. The findings come at a time when Montgomery and some other area jurisdictions have reimposed the kind of restrictions on development that historically have led to slower job and economic growth.

In addition, Fairfax’s powerful, job-generating machine is causing a massive net migration of workers commuting into the county — 44,000 each day from Prince William County, 31,000 from Loudoun County and 22,000 from Montgomery County.

But while nearly 100,000 commuters stream in and out of Fairfax every day, the transportation system has not adjusted to the new economic pattern. Ms. Nilsen noted that Washington’s mass transit network was designed with the District as the hub, while Fairfax was a latecomer at adding Metro stations and bus routes.

As a result, traffic jams and soaring house prices have become the flip side of the county’s success. Fairfax County continues to wrestle with such basic transportation issues as building a rail line to Washington Dulles International Airport, and its pleas for funding often get a deaf ear from legislators in Richmond and Congress.

“They will have to cope with all the problems of urban government that any core city will have,” Ms. Nilsen said. “They need the type of transportation system that will move people back and forth and around the area.”

But Fairfax’s economic momentum has not diminished despite the stultifying traffic congestion and record housing prices of recent years — factors that might suggest it has reached the limits of growth, Mr. Perrins said.

After years of being “the place to be,” he said, Fairfax County also gets intangible benefits and “synergies” from its reputation and rich talent base of scientists, technical specialists and professionals. The competitive instincts of many businesses prompt them to locate there because that is where their best customers and competitors are.

“You don’t want to be left out,” he said.

Ms. Nilsen said she was “shocked” by the findings because, like many other area residents, she had expected the District, Montgomery County and other jurisdictions to contribute more to the region’s growth.

The District ranks close behind Fairfax County at creating high-paying private jobs, clocking in at about twice the national rate, but it has been devastated since 1990 by the loss of 27,000 federal jobs, almost offsetting the 31,000 professional jobs that opened. Professional job growth was comparatively slow at 30,000 in Montgomery, 13,000 in Prince George’s County and 12,000 in Loudoun.

Loudoun narrowly edged out Fairfax in the growth of technology and communications jobs, adding 9,343 during the period compared with Fairfax’s 8,484. Both counties saw the loss of numerous technology jobs created during the 1990s after the sector went bust in 2000, the economists said.

Military jobs, which play a big role in Arlington and some other area jurisdictions, were not included in the study.

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