A Tale of Two States, Part I: Job Growth in North Carolina since 1990

Many know that North Carolina is one of the fastest-growing states. It has added nearly 750,000 private-sector jobs since 1990, and its population recently eclipsed the 10 million mark. This job growth hasn’t touched all parts of the state, though: half of it has occurred in only two counties, and over one-third of the state’s counties have actually lost jobs over the past 25 years.

In the next series of posts, U2P0 will examine how the geography of jobs across the state has shifted since 1990, both overall and for specific industries.

Between 1990 and 2015, North Carolina’s population increased by nearly 3.5 million – a 52% gain – and the state added 766,992 private-sector jobs, which represents an increase of 29% over 1990 figures. Due to the state’s growing economy, Raleigh was recently ranked as the number one city for jobs by CNN.

Despite this strong job growth, 38 of the state’s 100 counties have fewer private-sector jobs in 2015 than they did in 1990. Twenty-six of those counties – over two-thirds of them – are either small towns or rural in character, and many are in the western and northeastern parts of the state. Much of these job losses have occurred as agricultural and textile industries have either shrunk or moved offshore.


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In this series, we’ll examine data collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for all of North Carolina’s counties and the state as a whole. This post will examine total private-sector job changes between 1990 and 2015, but in the upcoming weeks we’ll examine how jobs have changed across specific industries.

We’ll present both state-wide and at the county level data. Counties are classified into one of four types:

  • Urban: counties with cities of 50,000 people or greater, or counties where an adjoining urban area extends into them (30 counties)
  • Suburban: counties that are near large cities, but without a city of at least 50,000 people or encroachment from an adjoining urbanized area (16 counties)
  • Small town: counties with cities between 15,000 and 50,000 people (28 counties)
  • Rural: counties without a city of at least 15,000 people (26 counties)

The Job Engines: Mecklenburg and Wake Counties

Over the past half-century, North Carolina’s economy has transitioned from a primarily agricultural and manufacturing base to focus on the service industries, particularly finance and technology. During that period, the state’s fastest-growing metro areas have been Charlotte and Raleigh, respectively.

The data indicate that, between 1990 and 2015, Charlotte and Raleigh were the primarily job engines of the state. During that period, Mecklenburg (Charlotte) and Wake (Raleigh) Counties added 440,529 private-sector jobs – 221,591 for Mecklenburg and 218,938 for Wake. This represents increases of 68% and 110%, respectively. Further, Mecklenburg and Wake Counties have accounted for more than half – 57% – of all private-sector job growth state-wide.

Supporting Roles: Other Urban and Suburban Counties

Virtually all other private-sector job growth has occurred in other urban and, to a lesser extent, suburban counties. Overall, urban counties (outside of Mecklenburg and Wake) have added 281,326 jobs since 1990, and have accounted for 37% of all new private-sector jobs. The fastest-growing urban counties – again, outside of Mecklenburg and Wake – include Durham, New Hanover (Wilmington), Guilford (Greensboro), and Buncombe (Asheville).

Suburban counties are the smallest classification, with only 16 of them, and have gained a little over 17,000 jobs in the past 25 years. However, the state’s fastest-growing county in percentage terms, Currituck, is considered suburban (it’s part of the Virginia Beach-Norfolk metro area, commonly known as Hampton Roads). While jobs in Currituck County have more than tripled since 1990 – increasing 234% – this only represents a gain of 3,364 jobs.

Small Towns and Rural Counties:

In contrast to their urban and suburban counterparts, small towns and rural areas have experienced little job growth, and many have actually lost jobs over the past 25 years. Rural counties have only gained 1,539 jobs since 1990, and small towns have actually lost nearly 8,000 jobs in the same time period. On a percentage basis, the six counties with the largest job losses are all rural or small towns. All six of these lost at least 30% of their private-sector jobs since 1990.

Moving Forward

Despite a large expansion of private-sector jobs over the past 25 years, the geography of North Carolina’s job growth is highly uneven. Urban counties have accounted for 94% of all private-sector job growth, with over half of that in only two counties: Mecklenburg and Wake.

In contrast, almost half of counties classified as small town or rural have lost jobs since 1990, and many more have only experienced only marginal job growth. Many of these counties form an arc that begins west of Charlotte and stretches west and north of the Triad and Triangle before ending in northeastern North Carolina (excepting coastal counties, most of which have gained jobs). In addition, several counties in the southern portion of the Sandhills – including Anson, Richmond, and Scotland – have experienced significant job losses as well.

In coming posts, we’ll break down the aggregate jobs numbers and look at specific industries. We’ll look at counties that have been hardest hit by manufacturing and agricultural job losses, as well as those that have managed to hold onto or actually gained jobs. Further, we’ll examine whether the state’s high-tech industries have spread beyond the Research Triangle, and whether financial services jobs have developed in places other than Charlotte.

2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two States, Part I: Job Growth in North Carolina since 1990

    • Thanks for the comment. I admittedly simplified the methodology in the original post (the classification scheme comes from the Census Bureau). I’ve re-written it to clarify that ‘urban’ also includes counties where an adjoining urban area extends into the county. Because the Wilmington urbanized area (as defined by the Census) extends into Brunswick, it’s classified as urban. Some of the counties around Charlotte (like Union) have the same issue.


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