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Labor and Economic Analysis Division, Department of Commerce

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The Geography of Job Growth in North Carolina

You probably don’t need data to know that Raleigh and Charlotte are doing well.  The success of large urban metros has been well-documented across the country; They have long-since recovered from the Great Recession, while rural areas are still struggling by and large.  Unfortunately, the conversation in North Carolina often turns to “Raleigh and Charlotte are doing well… at the expense of everyone else.”  This point of view sets up an urban vs. rural divide that distracts us from building on the unique strengths within each individual region.  The idea that our very different urban and rural areas are competing against each other might not be fair, or realistic.  The question we need to be asking is how are these areas doing relative to similarly sized geographies across the United States?  And more importantly, what can we learn from these comparable areas outside of our state?

This article focuses on comparing job growth for large metros (population 1M+), secondary metros (population < 1M), and nonmetro areas of North Carolina to similarly sized regions across the United States.  These geographic areas are defined using the Census Bureau’s county designations for metropolitan statistical areas (MSA).
Source:  Census Bureau MSA designations; July 2015

Large metros in North Carolina growing jobs at 2X the national rate

Twelve counties in North Carolina, representing one third of the state’s population, are considered part of a large MSA1.  Led by the strength of Charlotte and Raleigh, jobs in large metro areas have grown at 2X the national rate, 13.6% vs. 6.6%, since their pre-Great Recession employment peak in 2007.  This is a sign of economic strength and highlights a comparative advantage for these areas relative to other large metros across the country.

Source:  Quarterly Census Employment and Wages (QCEW); annual data

Half of secondary metro counties in NC experienced job growth

Thirty-four counties in North Carolina, representing 45% of the state’s population, are part of MSAs with populations < 1 million. In total, secondary metro employment levels in North Carolina have grown 0.2% since 2007, lagging the national growth rate of 2.8%.  However, as a positive sign, the gap narrowed somewhat in 2016 as North Carolina’s year-over-year growth rate of 1.9% surpassed the national rate of 1.4% for the first time since the recession.  Of the 14 secondary MSAs, only Jacksonville and Goldsboro saw a decline in 2016.  Half of secondary metro counties in NC have recovered from the recession, growing a total of 5.0% (Myrtle Beach2 , Jacksonville, Durham-Chapel Hill, Asheville, Wilmington, Greenville, and Fayetteville).  The other half have not recovered, declining a total of 3.9% (Rocky Mount, Goldsboro, Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton, New Bern, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Burlington).

Source:  Quarterly Census Employment and Wages (QCEW); NC counties only; annual data

Nonmetro job growth lags national pace, but is picking up speed

Across the United States and specially within North Carolina, nonmetros, often referred to as rural, are the only areas that have not recovered to their pre-recession employment peak.  There are 54 counties within North Carolina considered to be outside of metropolitan statistical areas.  About two million people live within these counties, representing 22% of the state’s population.  In total, these counties are still 6.1% below their pre-recession peak employment level, trailing the U.S. growth rate by 3.9%.  Of the 54 nonmetro counties in North Carolina, only 8 have recovered individually.  However, recent data shows signs of improvement.  In total, job growth has occurred every year since 2012 and outpaced the national nonmetro year-over-year growth rate in 2015 and 2016.  Most recently, two thirds of these counties (36 out of 54) saw job growth between 2015 and 2016, adding 7,885 jobs in nonmetro areas across North Carolina.

In future articles, we will explore local commuting patterns in these areas, how North Carolina’s industrial mix impacts these metrics, whether wage growth follows a similar trend, and how our state compares to neighbors in the Southeast such as South Carolina and Georgia.  Stay tuned.

Notes:  Oregon Office of Economic Analysis published a similar article earlier this year.  Their analysis used quarterly data and measured growth relative to each county’s individual peak employment level.  This analysis measures the peak employment level for each geographic area in total relative to 2007.  2.4% of total NC employment (about 100K jobs) are classified as an “undefined” county from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Assigning these jobs to any geographic category would impact the results of the analysis (represents 6.3% of large metro employment, 5.5% secondary metro, and 12.2% nonmetro).

[1] According to the Census Bureau, Currituck County and Gates County are included in the Virginia Beach MSA.  
[2] According to the Census Bureau, Brunswick County is included in the Myrtle Beach MSA.


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