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State winners and losers in the jobs war

Year after year, our Top States study tells the ever-changing story of state competitiveness. We've seen the states through the housing boom and the mortgage crisis. We've compared how the states navigated the Great Recession and shown how some states more than others have capitalized on the energy revolution.

Read MoreAmerica's Top States for Business 2014

Some states, like Texas, have been remarkably consistent finishers. Others have been, well, all over the map. And 2014 is another year of big moves in our rankings.

Turnaround tales

Two of the states in our top five—first-place Georgia and fifth-place North Carolina—each jumped seven places from last year, thanks largely to their growing economies. But for overall improvement, this year's Cinderella story is Nevada.

The Silver State is still in the bottom half of the states at number 29. But that is an 18-place surge from last year, when Nevada finished 47th.

Sure, Nevada didn't have many ways to go besides up. But a jump this big in one year is rare. How did Nevada do it?

Miss Nevada Nia Sanchez.
Getty Images
Miss Nevada Nia Sanchez.

One way is jobs growth—a metric we recently added to our Economy category to better capture the dynamic nature of state economies. In the period we measured, April 2013 to April 2014, Nevada added nearly 45,000 nonfarm jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's nearly a 4 percent increase, putting Nevada behind only economic powerhouse North Dakota for year-over-year growth. A big source of the improvement was in leisure and hospitality services, with Las Vegas tourism on the rise. But Nevada also saw growth in other economically sensitive areas, like construction. For the first time in quite a while, unemployment in Nevada, while still high, is no longer the highest in the nation.

Read MoreState winners and losers in the jobs war

Nevada does benefit from easy comparisons. Its housing market, among the hardest hit by the mortgage crisis, is roaring back. Foreclosures are moving down, and prices are moving up faster than anyplace in the nation.

Nevada still has serious issues, including one of the nation's worst education systems, according to our study. Economic growth is still sluggish. But it appears that one of the many lights blinking on The Strip these days just may be a glimmer of hope.

The Silicon Valley Paradox

The situation is similar just next door in California, which rises 14 spots this year. A rank of 32nd overall is nothing to write home about, but it sure beats 46th—and a spot in the bottom five—last year.

The Golden State is a perennial paradox in America's Top States for Business. It's a magnet for technology, innovation and venture capital. But it's also a regulatory morass with some of the highest costs in the nation.

This year's rankings show the potential when America's largest state economy—one of the 10 largest economies in the world—is growing. Solid gains in GDP and jobs helped California move up to ninth place in our Economy category and out of the lower echelons of our overall rankings.

Read MoreFrankenstates: Winning the agriculture tech war

Other states with double-digit improvements this year include Washington, which rises 13 spots to number 7 overall thanks to one of the strongest housing markets in the country. The housing recovery also helped Illinois improve 10 places to finish 27th overall. And jobs came flooding back to Florida, helping the Sunshine State move up 10 spots to number 20.

For every winner in America's Top States for Business, there is a loser, and that is truer than ever in 2014.

Job Shortages Take a Toll

Last year's Top State for Business, South Dakota, drops 10 spots this year to finish 11th overall. It is the first time since our study began that a Top State fell out of the top 10 the following year, and proof that the competition never rests.

South Dakota falls in several categories this year, but nowhere more than in Economy, where the Mount Rushmore State tumbles to 20th place from sixth in 2013. While we found the state's housing market to be the healthiest in the nation, and the state's fiscal health impeccable, a nagging shortage of workers appears to be taking a toll. Economic growth and jobs growth have slowed to a trickle. Eleventh place is certainly nothing to be ashamed of, but based on our study South Dakota has seen even better days.

Read MoreThe 5 worst states for business in the U.S.

The biggest drop this year is in Montana. Big Sky Country falls 15 points to 33rd overall, behind California. Cost of Doing Business went up in Montana—largely because of higher utility prices—and job growth slowed. Montana also slipped in our Infrastructure category after the EPA reported 7 percent of the state's population is served by community water systems that reported health-based violations.

Also falling double digits is neighboring Wyoming—a top 10 state last year thanks to its low costs and easy regulation. The Equality State slips to 21st this year. The state still offers the lowest tax burden in the country, but overall business costs are rising due to increasing costs for industrial and office space.

Vermont slips 11 spots as well, to 42nd overall. The brutal winter hurt the Green Mountain State this year. Not only did it slow the economy, but utility costs have gone from the lowest in the nation to among the highest. That's puts a big dent in Vermont's Cost of Doing Business score.

—By CNBC's Scott Cohn

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  • CNBC's senior correspondent and lead investigative reporter, Scott Cohn also appears on "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams," "Today" and on MSNBC.

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