Since the 1970s, the U.S. economy has undergone a significant shift away from manufacturing and toward service industries. North Carolina has not escaped this larger trend, as production of its two signature products – furniture and textiles – has relocated to foreign counties, most notably China and Mexico.
In this post, we’ll examine one negative aspect of economic restructuring on North Carolina: loss of manufacturing jobs. The offshoring of the state’s furniture and textiles industries has negatively impacted many of the state’s counties, especially those between Charlotte and Greensboro.
To be blunt, the change in North Carolina’s manufacturing sector has been significant, although it resembles shifts occurring elsewhere in the country. The state has lost 44% of its private-sector* manufacturing jobs since 1990, with some counties losing over 75%. Only four have gained manufacturing jobs within that time frame, and only one of these – Bladen, just outside of Fayetteville – has gained an appreciable number.
The Geography of North Carolina Manufacturing in 1990
Historically, North Carolina has been one of the more industrialized states in the South. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the state became a hub of both textiles and furniture, with the latter industry centered on High Point and extending from Charlotte to Greensboro.
Manufacturing employment in the U.S. peaked in 1977 (on a percentage basis, with 22% of all non-farm jobs) and 1979 (in terms of absolute numbers, with 19.6 million Americans employed in manufacturing). However, manufacturing remained a significant part of North Carolina’s economy, and constituted 32% of jobs state-wide in 1990.
In 1990, counties most reliant on manufacturing jobs were broadly located in an arc around Charlotte, beginning in Rutherford County in the west and extending to the southern Sandhills in the east. Many of these counties had over 50% of their private-sector jobs in manufacturing. A few counties in northeastern North Carolina – including Bertie and Martin – also had over half of their 1990 jobs in manufacturing.
Changes in manufacturing employment
Many of the counties that relied most heavily on manufacturing have also experienced the sharpest job losses in the sector. Each of the six counties** with the greatest proportion of 1990 manufacturing jobs lost at least 38% of these jobs by 2015. Of those, Hoke County lost 60% of its manufacturing jobs, while Yancey lost 84% – an especially steep drop considering that 62% of its jobs were in manufacturing in 1990.
Across the four county types, small towns have lost the greatest proportion of manufacturing jobs, with these declining by a little over 50 percent. They are followed in short order by suburban and rural counties, which each lost slightly under 50% of their manufacturing jobs.
However, in absolute terms, urban counties have actually lost the greatest number of manufacturing jobs – nearly 175,000 of them. However, this represents the smallest decrease, percentage-wise, among county types. Relatively smaller decreases in urban county manufacturing may indicate that these jobs are higher-skilled (and more difficult to offshore) than jobs in rural counties and small towns.
Summing it up
For rural counties and small towns, loss of manufacturing jobs has contributed heavily toward economic decline over the past 25 years. While urban and suburban counties have attracted service-sector jobs to replace manufacturing job losses, rural places and small towns have not experienced the same success. In turn, they have experienced only marginal job growth, or have actually lost jobs in the past 25 years.
Our next post will look at changes in North Carolina’s high-skilled service industries: technology and finance. While these sectors have largely grown around Wake (technology) and Mecklenburg (finance) Counties, we’ll examine whether these jobs have ‘spilled over’ to surrounding counties. We’ll also investigate whether any new areas have made themselves hubs of research or financial services.
* As in our other posts, the analysis here is limited to the private-sector jobs market. We’ll omit ‘private-sector’ occasionally to limit repetition.
** Alexander, Montgomery, Hoke, Bertie, Caldwell, and Yancey.