As the shock of the Great Recession recedes, it is becoming increasingly clear that our economy is falling short of our long-standing expectations about economic growth and prosperity. Like the national economy in recent years, North Carolina has experienced significant decline in its labor force, the replacement of good-wage manufacturing jobs with low-wage service jobs, wage stagnation, and increased income inequality.

Having a job is no longer a guarantee of financial security because increasingly jobs no longer provide the wages, benefits, and opportunities for upward advancement that make it possible for workers to make ends meet. As a result, the ongoing debate about how many jobs have been created in North Carolina over the past year misses an important assessment of how the economy affects workers, their families and the broader community: how good are the jobs that have been created?

Workers need quality jobs—jobs that provide clear pathways to prosperity for themselves and their families—in order to support a strong economy. These quality jobs help the broader economy by enabling workers to purchase goods and services at local businesses, build assets in
their neighborhood and position their children for future prosperity. A quality job fulfills, at least, the following requirements:

  • Pays a living wage that allows workers to afford the basics, make ends meet, and provide for their families.
  • Allows workers to take paid time to recover from illness, to welcome the birth or adoption of a new child, or care for sick family members.
  • Ensures retirement security, including access to sufficient income to retire with dignity.
  • Provides access to affordable health insurance.
  • Allows workers to collectively bargain with their employer for better wages and benefits.
  • Provides workers with access to pathways for skill development and career mobility.

Unfortunately, quality jobs that provide these benefits are on the decline, making it far more difficult for work itself to generate security, provide opportunity and deliver prosperity. Given the disappearance of these quality jobs, policy makers are confronted with the fundamental policy challenge of how to construct policy supports that provide workers with the benefits they used to receive from their job—and in turn ensure that workers secure greater access to the economic rewards their labor generates.

At the heart of the decline in quality jobs lies the much-debated intersection of technological development and public policy. As an increasing body of research is discovering, rapid technological change has the potential to transform the very nature of work—how we work, who we work for, and how our work is rewarded—with profound implications for workers’ access to
quality jobs. In turn, public policy plays a crucial role in determining what those pressures mean
for workers and their access to quality jobs.

This year’s State of Working North Carolina is designed to explore core components of a quality
job in the context of a changing reality of work—why these components are necessary, why they
are disappearing, and how specific policies can be designed to encourage their growth or provide workers with the benefits they are no longer receiving from their jobs. Getting the policy design right is fundamental to ensuring that work actually benefits workers and by extension promotes an economy that benefits everyone in North Carolina.