When it comes to living the American Dream, it matters where you do the dreaming.

A study this year by the nonprofit research group Pew Center on the States found that New Jersey residents stand a much better chance of career advancement than those living elsewhere.

Economic mobility — the ability of workers to move up the income ladder — was higher in New Jersey, Maryland and New York than in any other part of the country.

“The take-home for us is that where you live really matters,” Pew research manager Diana Elliott said. “New Jersey in our study is a good place to live in terms of economic mobility.”

The Pew study did not attempt to answer why some states offered better or worse economic advancement. But Elliott said previous studies have identified influences such as higher education, personal savings and assets, and children who grow up in poverty.

“It’s important to remember economic mobility doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Elliott said. “There are lots of factors that could be at play in economic mobility.”

The findings were not surprising to New Jersey economists such as Richard Perniciaro, director of the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College.

“It’s mostly because of the diversification of the industry we have here,” he said.

Perniciaro said the key to career success often isn’t moving up the same corporate ladder but switching ladders.

“You could get into the pharmaceutical industry and say ‘This is where I’ll make my name.’ But then there are roadblocks,” he said.

Often these obstacles force people to change career paths, he said.

“The diversification of industries is good for that. People are able to move up in their industry or laterally as well,” he said.

Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties have a less diverse economy than central and northern New Jersey, and that places more limits on this kind of career advancement, Perniciaro said.

“It’s hard to do in South Jersey. You can get your start here. But if you’re not willing to move on, it’s going to be harder,” he said. “There are only so many people who make their way to the very top. You have to be willing to move someplace else.”

But the area is full of examples, from casino executives to small-business owners, who found opportunities in New Jersey. They shared their stories.

Dr. Jon M. Regis

Atlantic City

CEO and President, Reliance Medical Group, Pleasantville

Dr. Jon M. Regis, 59, of Atlantic City, grew up in North Carolina before his medical residency in Philadelphia brought him to Cherry Hill, where he launched his practice.

He now is president and chief executive officer of Reliance Medical Group, a Pleasantville-based health care provider with 28 offices and 200 employees in New Jersey.

Regis said geography had a lot to do with his success. His residency in New Jersey gave him important contacts within the medical industry that proved invaluable in starting his own business.

“I think some of it was being in the right place at the right time,” he said. “Health care was changing. Managed care was just coming about.”

Regis said he does not doubt that New Jersey provides better career opportunities than other parts of the country. But he said South Jersey offers far fewer avenues than the rest of the state.

“What industry in South Jersey could compare to what’s going on in Washington, D.C., or New York? We have the casinos, health care, a few manufacturing plants and agriculture,” he said. “There are opportunities in South Jersey but because of infrastructure and transportation problems, high rates of poverty and healthcare disparities, South Jersey will lag behind North Jersey and other progressive areas of the country.”

He serves on a task force at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey studying ways to fund higher education, which is quickly moving out of financial reach of more New Jersey students.

“The system is broken. Between 65 (percent) and 70 percent of new jobs in New Jersey over the next 15 years will require a college education. That’s an astounding statistic. If you look at dropout rates from high school and college, most people will not qualify for those jobs,” he said. “It doesn’t bode well for the future generation. That is going to be a huge problem.”

Julie Gunn

Ocean City

Owner, Gabrielle & Co.

Julie Gunn grew up in a small town in North Dakota. After a divorce in the mid-1980s, she and her 3-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, moved to Connecticut, where Gunn worked at a furniture chain. She was promoted to manager of a store in the Hamilton Mall in Mays Landing. A year later, she moved to Ocean City.

“When I found Ocean City, I thought it was a gem — a small-town atmosphere where you were able to get to know everyone and join the local clubs or politics or whatever your interests were,” she said.

A survey of the businesses on the island found a lot of longevity that encouraged her to start her own business, the clothing and accessories store Gabrielle & Co., which celebrated 25 years on Asbury Avenue this year.

“The same businesses I went into on my first visit — the Cricket Box, Sun Seekers, Wards Bakery, Wallace Hardware — all of those businesses are still here. I felt the energy. I knew if they could do it, I could, too,” she said.

Gunn said she was able to take advantage of the resort’s economic potential. Geography has a lot to do with the resort’s success. It draws visitors from as far away as Quebec, Ohio and Virginia.

“Between Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York, there are a lot of powerful cities here with a lot going on,” she said.

She opened a second store in Hammonton in 2010.

“It’s nice to hear positive figures about New Jersey. There is much opportunity here,” she said. “But in anything, you really have to have the right combination of tenacity and high energy. You have to look at what’s going on and be willing to adapt.”

Bob Matthews

Linwood

President, Copiers Plus, Egg Harbor Township

Bob Matthews, 54, of Linwood, watched some of his friends flee the state in the late 1970s to pursue better economic opportunities in North Carolina, Florida and the West Coast.

He stayed in the region, working in the copier-repair business in Philadelphia before striking out on his own in the 1980s in Atlantic County.

He is president of Copiers Plus, which has stores in Egg Harbor Township and Ocean City.

“We were there at the right time … for the second wave,” he said of Atlantic City’s casino-hotel expansion in the 1990s. “We were very fortunate. The timing was really good for me with the gaming and all the businesses that spun off of that. You had real estate, insurance and medical.”

Matthews said he is not surprised at New Jersey’s good ranking for career advancement. He sees similar opportunities for the next generation, albeit in the central and northern parts of New Jersey.

“In South Jersey, the opportunities come from the casino industry, the FAA Technical Center and the larger hospitals,” he said. “There isn’t a lot of manufacturing or distribution.”

Matthews said success always depends on the individual and his or her talents, abilities and ambitions.

“I think there is more opportunity now than there used to be with improvement in technology and education,” he said. “What it really boils down to is people. They have to be driven. They have to be motivated. They have to have the ambition to do better. They’ll find those opportunities.”

Richard Palombo

Upper Township

Senior director of regulatory affairs, Express Scripts, St. Louis, Mo.

Richard Palombo, 56, grew up in North Wildwood as the son of a pharmacist. He followed in the footsteps of his father, Aldo Palombo’s, by studying pharmacology.

His career took him to the regulatory side of the industry at several national pharmaceutical companies. Today, he is senior director of regulatory affairs for Express Scripts, based in St. Louis, Mo.

The mayor of Upper Township also serves on the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy and the New Jersey Board of Pharmacy, boards on which he served terms as president.

Pharmacists in general can often pick their geographic location across the United States. But New Jersey is especially fertile ground. Pharmaceuticals remain New Jersey’s top industry with plenty of opportunities for advancement, he said.

He works on the regulatory side from his home office in Upper Township. New Jersey has nationally renowned medical schools and institutions that give locally trained pharmacists a competitive advantage, he said.

“New Jersey is on the cutting edge of a lot of new technology. It’s on the cusp of a lot of modern practices that may take time for other areas to catch up,” he said. “There are a lot of advanced sciences here, research and development. Even in the practice setting, there are distinguished people who work in New Jersey.”

Palombo said he sees some limitations on career growth in Cape May County, which has comparatively fewer opportunities than other parts of the state.

“It depends on what you choose as a career. It’s difficult. If you grew up on a barrier island, it’s difficult for the younger generation to get their foot in the door,” he said. “But I do believe New Jersey affords a lot of opportunities for people to advance.”

Contact Michael Miller:

609-272-7217