A Tale of Two States III: White-Collar Jobs


Welcome back to Urban2Point0! After an extended holiday break in a time zone far, far away (post forthcoming), we’re ready to wrap-up our analysis of North Carolina’s job growth.

Our last post showed how, in a period when North Carolina added nearly three-quarters of a million jobs, the state also experienced significant job losses in the manufacturing sector. Small towns and rural counties were hit especially hard by these job losses – in fact, small towns lost nearly half of their manufacturing jobs between 1990 and 2015.

In this post, we’ll shift our attention to white-collar jobs, specifically finance and professional services – which includes management, research, and engineering.* These industries have driven job growth in both North Carolina and the entire U.S. over the past decades. White-collar jobs tend to concentrate in large cities, and North Carolina is no different – with Charlotte serving as a major financial center and Raleigh as a hub of research and technology.

The two white-collar industries that this post examines are finance and what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls “professional and business services” – more on that below. Not surprisingly, both finance and professional services jobs have increased in North Carolina since 1990. The state has added over 78,000 finance jobs since 1990, more than doubling in that time period. For professional services, North Carolina gained over 350,000 jobs – a greater than 150 percent increase.

There are two ways of looking at the county-level data, and each way tells a different story. When we look at percentage growth over the past 25 years, many counties have experienced very sharp increases in both finance and professional jobs. For instance, Madison County in extreme western North Carolina increased its professional services jobs by 497 percent, while Currituck County (in the state’s northeastern corner) increased its financial services jobs by 680 percent.

When our focus shifts to the number of jobs added, though, the conclusions shift dramatically. Mecklenburg and Wake Counties have added by far the most white-collar jobs, with only small increases in small towns and rural counties. In fact, that 497 percent in Madison County only represents an increase of 497 positions. The 680 percent increase in Currituck County’s finance jobs translates to only 544 actual jobs added.


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Finance Jobs:  Does Charlotte maintain dominance?

The finance industry has been one of the leading drivers of North Carolina’s growth and expansion. The state’s growth has been led by Charlotte, which has become the nation’s second-largest financial center. Given the shifts occurring since the Great Recession – which included the bankruptcy of Charlotte-based Wachovia – one might wonder whether Charlotte has maintained its dominance in the financial industry, or whether its jobs have spilled over to other counties.

On a percentage basis, many North Carolina counties saw strong increases in finance jobs. These include counties with large cities (Mecklenburg and Wake), suburban areas (Pender County outside Wilmington and Franklin County near Raleigh) and more isolated places (Graham, Jackson, and Swain Counties in far Southwestern North Carolina). Only two small counties (Caswell and Tyrell) saw a substantial decrease in finance jobs.

However, in terms of actual finance job growth, Charlotte nearly outpaced the rest of the state. Mecklenburg County gained over 36,000 finance jobs – nearly half of all new finance jobs in the state and more than triple the number added in Wake County. Only a handful of other urban counties added over 1,000 finance jobs in the period. The strong gains in the state’s southwestern counties translate to fewer than 100 additional jobs in many counties.


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Professional services

The other major category of white-collar jobs is the ambiguously-named “Professional and Technical Services.” To the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this encompasses a variety of higher-end service professionals, like engineers, managers, researchers and administrators.** As of 2015, professional and technical services constitute approximately 17 percent of all private-sector jobs in the state – up from 9 percent in 1990.

As with the finance industry, nearly all counties gained professional services jobs between 1990 and 2015. On a percentage basis, some of these increases are dramatic: 18 counties more than quadrupled the number of professional services jobs in that period, and most of those are rural, small town or suburban counties. The state’s top gainer – rural Duplin County – increased the number of professional services jobs by more than 1200 percent from 1990 to 2015.

However, in terms of actual job growth, the vast majority of new professional service positions are in Mecklenburg and Wake Counties, which added 80,678 and 73,564 jobs, respectively. Fourteen of the top 15 professional services job gainers are urban counties. Many of the dramatic percentage increases in rural counties and small towns relate to 500 or fewer jobs added.

Summing it up

The data on white-collar job growth show a complicated picture. Nearly all of North Carolina’s counties have more white-collar jobs today than they did in 1990. Many rural and small town counties have experienced dramatic percentage growth in those industries. However, because they had few white-collar jobs to begin with, those large percentages don’t signify a large increase in actual jobs – and in many cases, they don’t represent a large enough increase to offset losses in manufacturing employment.

In terms of absolute numbers, the data echo a point made in our first post in this series:  most new jobs have flowed to urban areas, with Mecklenburg and Wake Counties lapping the field. Those two counties have added a combined 203,187 finance and professional services jobs – nearly half of the state’s total.

In our next post (and second-to-last one in the series), we’ll look at another growing industry: leisure and hospitality.  Many of North Carolina’s communities – both struggling and thriving – have worked to leverage tourism assets into economic growth opportunities. These assets may include beaches, natural beauty or even destination restaurants. While these jobs have also grown across the state, they often pay less than the manufacturing jobs they’re meant to replace, and frequently have fewer benefits.

* – As with our previous posts, analysis here is limited to private-sector jobs.

** – It’s almost easier to define professional services by what they’re not. In general, these are positions that require a college degree, don’t involve ‘making’ a product (since that would be manufacturing) and aren’t related to finance.

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