Understanding North Carolina’s Urban-Rural Divide


A recent article in the New York Times asks whether “North Carolina is the future of U.S. politics.” The article describes the state’s contentious political battles – most notably on House Bill 2, otherwise known as the ‘bathroom bill.’

One explanation given for the state’s political divide is a topic we’ve recently covered here at Urban2Point0: the concept of ‘two North Carolinas’ (we’ve called it ‘a Tale of Two States’). The author argues that:

The State’s metropolitan areas continue to prosper, with an influx of white-collar workers drawn to their thriving finance and technology sectors. But in North Carolina’s rural communities, the tobacco, textile, and manufacturing industries have collapsed, with little taking their place.

These economic disparities – and their relationship with areas either economically growing (where residents are more liberal) or shrinking (conservative) – exacerbate North Carolina’s partisan divides. The article quotes a state senator from rural North Carolina as upset about announcements of firms moving to Raleigh or Charlotte, arguing that “it’s like fish in a barrel.” He worries that efforts to attract firms and residents to cities will result in North Carolina losing what he feels are its traditional roots.

In this post, we’ll provide additional context to the New York Times story using data from the A Tale of Two States series. As in our previous posts, we’ll examine changes in private-sector employment between 1990 and 2015. (If you’re interested in probing these issues deeper, we recommend reading our previous posts on the subject.)

The growing service sector economy

The U.S. has seen its economy shift from manufacturing to the service sector since the 1970s. North Carolina is no exception to this trend. Between 1990 and 2015, the state’s fastest-growing industries were professional services, education and health care, and hospitality. In fact, the service sector comprises the top six fastest-growing industries in the state, and seven of the top eight.


One finding from A Tale of Two States is that growth of service-sector jobs across North Carolina has been strikingly uneven. Urban counties have gained hundreds of thousands of jobs while non-metro counties – including small towns and rural areas – have only gained a small number or even lost jobs. Between 1990 and 2015, metro counties added nearly 739,000 jobs, while rural and small town counties lost over 6,000 jobs.


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Concentrating growth in urban areas

This disparity between metro and non-metro counties is evident when we examine job growth in the service sector, which has accounted for nearly all of the state’s new jobs. Counties in metro areas are classified as either urban or suburban and are in shades of blue in the figure below. Non-metro counties are either classified as rural or small towns and are in shades of orange. We’ve separated Mecklenburg and Wake Counties because they account for so much job growth.


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For nearly all service industries, metro counties have accounted for at least 90% of private-sector job growth. In fact, for each industry, at least half of all job growth has occurred in just two counties: Mecklenburg (Charlotte) and Wake (Raleigh). Given that these two counties only account for 10% of the North Carolina’s population, one can see how service jobs have disproportionately clustered in these areas.


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Even more worrisome for non-metro counties: for the highest-paying industries in the service sector, job growth is even more concentrated in metro areas. For example:

  • Information: 100% of all job growth in metro areas (Mecklenburg and Wake Counties to be exact); average annual pay for these positions in North Carolina is $76,624.
  • Finance: 92% of all job growth in metro areas; average annual pay is $78,029 statewide.
  • Professional services: 91% of all job growth in metro areas; average annual pay is $58,748 statewide.

In comparison, the two service-sector industries where non-metro counties have done slightly better – education and health care in addition to hospitality – have annual average salaries of $44,753 and $18,236, respectively.

Are there policy responses?

North Carolina’s experience of urban growth and rural decline is not unique: across the U.S. and industrialized world, service-sector jobs are concentrating in cities and metro areas.* Scholars have proposed several reasons for why this is occurring. These include:

  • College graduates generally prefer to live in cities, so locating jobs in urban areas makes it easier to attract employees.
  • Service industries don’t occupy as much land as manufacturing, so firms are less sensitive to the price of land (which is much higher in cities than rural areas).
  • Service industries – particularly finance and technology – benefit from being in proximity to one another, particularly from their employees interacting with those at other companies. This is easier in cities than in spread-out rural areas.

The New York Times article quotes State Senator Ralph Hise as arguing that “it’s really going to take workforce development and recruiting and economic incentives … to tag those industries that can come into this state and serve in one of the rural areas.” Some Southern states – notably South Carolina (Boeing and BMW) and Alabama (Airbus and Mercedes-Benz) have attracted manufacturing with incentives.

It takes substantial funds, though, to attract these factories, and competition among states is fierce. Further, new manufacturing facilities often piggyback off previous ones. North Carolina’s inability to attract manufacturing in the past may hinder its ability to attract factories now.

North Carolina may consider incentivizing other industries for non-metro counties. The state has already enjoyed some success attracting logistics firms, which can then help attract manufacturing and warehousing businesses. Any efforts to attract jobs to rural areas, however, shouldn’t be at the expense of efforts to attract service-sector industries to urban areas. Ultimately, an approach that leverages North Carolina’s strengths in finance and technology, and its emerging logistics sector, may be the best path for economic vitality in all parts of the state.


* A very quick calculation shows that approximately 93% of all private-sector job growth between 1990-2015 occurred in metro areas.

A Tale of Two States IV: Hospitality Jobs


For our final industry profile for the series, A Tale of Two States: Job Growth and Change in North Carolina, 1990-2015, we’ll turn our attention to hospitality and leisure-sector jobs. Jobs in this sector include those in the arts, entertainment and recreation fields, in addition to accommodations (like hotels) and food services (restaurants). These service-sector positions are generally lower skilled and have lower pay than the average job. For example, the average annual pay for a hospitality/leisure job in North Carolina is $18,236 – less than half of the statewide average of $46,531.

Hospitality jobs have grown sharply in the state. Between 1990 and 2015, jobs in this sector nearly doubled – an increase of over 225,00 jobs – and now comprise 14 percent of North Carolina’s jobs (up from 9 percent in 1990). Among the ten major industry sectors tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), leisure/hospitality ranked third in terms of both growth in actual jobs and percentage-wise.

Change in private-sector employment by industry, 1990-2015


North Carolina’s Hospitality Sector

Unsurprisingly, the counties with the largest share of jobs in hospitality are located in the state’s two tourist draws: the mountains and the coast. The leading counties for hospitality jobs in 2015 include Dare (which includes most of the Outer Banks), Swain (located within Great Smoky Mountains National Park), and Perquimans (along Albemarle Sound). All of these counties have over 30 percent of their jobs within the hospitality industry.

Away from the state’s tourism hot spots, most counties have between eight and 13 percent of their workforce in the hospitality industry. Exceptions to this include Moore County – home to the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club – and Orange County, likely due to businesses catering to visitors to the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

Hospitality Job Growth

Nearly all of North Carolina’s counties saw their number of hospitality jobs increase between 1990 and 2015. Somewhat unexpectedly, the greatest increase in hospitality jobs occurred in Cabarrus County, just northeast of Charlotte (and nowhere near the mountains or the coast). The county is home, however, to the Charlotte Motor Speedway and related attractions, in addition to a large shopping mall and waterpark resort (and, of course, terrible traffic).

Other strong gainers in hospitality jobs are in areas more traditionally associated with the hospitality industry. These include Graham County in the state’s southwestern corner (+321 percent), Brunswick County just outside of Wilmington (+261 percent) and Pamlico County along the coast (+258 percent).

In terms of raw growth numbers, Mecklenburg and Wake Counties have added the most hospitality jobs (80,396 across the two counties). However, these figures represent a relatively small proportion of the total jobs added across the state (about 35 percent). This differs from other industries – including finance and professional services – where Mecklenburg and Wake accounted for over half of the state’s job growth.

The State’s Increasing Reliance on Hospitality Jobs

As we discussed at the beginning of this post, leisure and hospitality is one of the state’s fastest-growing industries. As a result, an increasing number of jobs in the state are within this sector, as shown on the map below. Overall, the percent of North Carolina’s jobs in the hospitality sector increased by five percentage points between 1990 and 2015.


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Among the state’s 100 counties, 96 of them saw the hospitality sector either grow or remain roughly the same between 1990 and 2015. Many of the counties seeing significant expansion of the hospitality sector include areas of southwestern and southeastern North Carolina popular with tourists. Surprisingly, in Dare County, hospitality jobs decreased as a percentage of all jobs (from 34 percent of all jobs to 32 percent), though the sector still comprises nearly one-third of all jobs in the county. This decrease might actually be a positive for the county, as it indicates that its economy is diversifying beyond the tourism industry.

Looking Ahead

This post is our last look at individual industries in North Carolina (it just so happens that hospitality has the highest BLS code). Our next post – the last in this series – will classify the state’s 100 counties based on their job growth over the past 25 years. Using a statistical technique called cluster analysis, we’ll look at the similarities and differences across North Carolina’s counties, and see if any geographic patterns emerge. Cluster analysis also has the benefit of allowing us to consider job growth (and losses) across the 10 industrial codes used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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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A Tale of Two States, Part II: Manufacturing

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.

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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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A Tale of Two States: Job Growth and Change in North Carolina, 1990-2015

Over the last twenty-five years, North Carolina has been one of the fastest-growing states in the country. The state’s economy has diversified beyond agriculture and manufacturing to become dominant in both finance and technology. The state has also attracted retirees drawn to its high-class medical facilities, especially in the Research Triangle area around Raleigh and Durham.

This economic transformation has not benefited the entire state, however. Small towns and rural areas – many reliant on tobacco farming and textile manufacturing – have lost both population and jobs as their economic prospects have dimmed. Some of these counties, though, have reinvented themselves as tourism hubs – particularly in the western part of the state.

In the next series of posts, U2P0 will examine the changing geography of jobs in North Carolina from 1990 to 2015. Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we’ll report private-sector job changes both overall and within certain industries. The first post will examine total job changes from 1990 through 2015, and our attention will then turn to manufacturing, technology, finance, and tourism.

We’ve termed the series “A Tale of Two States” to reflect the highly-divergent economic trajectories of the state’s counties. Over half of the state’s private-sector job growth has occurred in two counties: Mecklenburg (Charlotte) and Wake (Raleigh). Outside of those places, counties have either gained a more modest number of employment opportunities or struggled with job loss.