On the surface, North Carolina’s labor market appears to recovering—the unemployment rate has dropped below 9 percent over the past three months, and employment growth has remained steady over much of the last year. Unfortunately, much of this improvement is concentrated in just a few areas of the state—notably the four major metros of Charlotte, Durham, Raleigh, and Asheville—while much of the rest of North Carolina continues to struggle.
An obvious area of concern on this front involves the wide differences in the opportunity to find work found across many of these counties. Looking at the working population rate of each county (the percentage of all residents over the age of 16 that are employed), it becomes clear that some counties are lagging significantly behind others. A lower working population rate implies that fewer people in the county have jobs, while a higher rate implies more people are employed—providing a clear and accurate picture of labor market conditions at the county level.
Although state’s average working population rate is 55.9 percent of all residents over the age of 16, just 30 counties have better than the statewide average, almost all of which are concentrated along major Interstate corridors and in urban areas (see Figure). Conversely, 70 counties have working population rates below the statewide average, and most of these are concentrated in rural communities, with the deepest levels of distress in Northeastern North Carolina.
Many of these counties have fewer than five workers employed for every ten people in the county—a dangerous symptom that jobs just aren’t available in three quarters of our state’s counties. Given that there are three unemployed people for every available job opening in North Carolina, many of low-employment counties likely have even fewer job openings, and more unemployed workers competing for them.
As a result, ensuring job creation occurs in all communities across the state—especially the most distressed—is a critical challenge facing state lawmakers.