Utah continued to be one of the nation's top job generators in 1997 with a 4.26 percent growth in nonfarm jobs that kept the state in third place nationally for the year, behind Nevada at 5.52 percent and Arizona at 4.48 percent.

That's the finding of the Blue Chip Job Growth Update for April published by the Bank One Economic Outlook Center at Arizona State University.The top three positions in the state rankings were unchanged from 1996.

But while Utah held its own in the rankings, the Wasatch Front did not. The Salt Lake-Ogden metro area plunged from ninth place in 1996 to 41st position in 1997 with a 4.21 percent increase in jobs. The Provo-Orem area dropped from seventh place to 39th on a 4.23 percent gain.

The top metro job creator last year, repeating its 1996 first-place performance, was Sarasota-Bradenton, Fla., with an 8.50 percent increase.

The Wasatch Front trend toward slower job creation is continuing this year, according to the report's February analysis (the latest month for which figures are available).

Among the metro areas, Salt Lake-Ogden dropped from 20th in February 1997 to 65th in February 1998 on 3.78 percent jobs growth. Provo-Orem moved down from 38th to 102nd on 3.16 percent growth.

The state did better. Utah was in eighth position in February, up from 12th in February 1996 with a 3.92 percent gain in jobs.

How can Utah remain strong as a state while its major population centers are falling off in job growth? There are several reasons, said Jeff Thredgold, president of Thredgold Economic Associates, consultant to Zions Bank and a contributor to the Blue Chip survey.

Part of the disparity, he said, is that the tightest labor markets are in Salt Lake and Utah counties.

"We've been seeing job growth around the state, but more of it is taking place outside of Salt Lake City and Provo."

Also, he said, it's not so much that the Wasatch Front has slowed drastically in job creation but that the rest of the country has caught up.

"Other metro areas have really picked up the pace," he said. "The U.S. had the best overall economic growth in nine years in 1997 with 3.8 percent growth in real gross domestic product and a 3.2 million net increase in total employment."

Finally, he noted, several of the states near the top in job growth last year are tightly bunched. Texas, in fourth place, is only 0.1 percent behind Utah, and three states are tied at two-tenths back. The result is that small movements in the percentages can create big changes in the rankings.

Overall, Western states dominated job creation last year. Of the top 10, seven were located in the West. In descending order, they were Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Texas, Colorado, Washington, Florida, Oregon, Kansas and North Carolina.

Nevada has placed first in new jobs growth in seven of the past 10 years and has led the nation for four consecutive years. Arizona and Utah have ranked second and third in each of the past four years.

The bottom 10 states in job growth, in descending order, were Arkansas, Illinois, Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia, South Dakota, New York, Vermont, Wyoming and, in last place, Hawaii with 0.2 percent growth in jobs.