BTC-percent-change-in-nc-residents-with-jobs-since-start-of-covid-19 March2022

More jobs in NC than before COVID, but not everyone is recovering the same

We’re back, did you miss us?

We’ve taken the past few months off from covering labor market data because, well, the data were really weird. The pandemic wreaked havoc on a lot of survey collections (including last year’s Census), and the monthly labor market figures have not been spared. We’ve seen big revisions to previously released jobs and unemployment figures throughout the pandemic, and then things got even stranger at the start of this year. Without going into all of the technical details, just know that the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which releases the monthly labor market figures, revises previous years’ data at the start of each year. While that process was going on, it became hard to tell what stories the data were really telling. But that’s been worked out now, and so we can say with more confidence what’s going on in North Carolina’s labor market. Here are a few stories worth keeping your eye on:

1) North Carolina has recovered all of the jobs lost due to COVID-19 and then some: Based on the new data, toward the end of last year, North Carolina as a whole appears to have gotten back to where we were before the pandemic, and we are getting close to having 100,000 more jobs than before COVID-19. The puts North Carolina ahead of the national pace of recovery, where the employment total still has not fully recovered to pre-COVID levels. Unprecedented federal aid helped to keep families afloat and greatly hastened our economic recovery from a generational crisis. That’s all great news, but it’s still too soon to throw a dance party and declare everything is peachy-keen.

2) Less than half of NC’s counties have more people working than before COVID-19: The recovery continues to spread across the state, but it’s extremely uneven. Only 42 of our 100 counties have more residents working than before the pandemic, so the statewide total doesn’t tell the whole story. There some pretty big differences in local unemployment rates. Nine counties logged an unemployment rate below 3 percent — remarkably tight labor markets by historical standards. On the other hand, unemployment remains above 6 percent in 10 counties, and the highest unemployment rate for March was 8.7 percent in Hyde County. All that shows that we don’t have one economic reality across the state — it’s deeply rooted in regional forces.

3) We’re leaving a lot of rural communities behind, just like after the Great Recession: We’re at risk of repeating the dismal failure to bring recovery to all of North Carolina following the Great Recession. The injection of federal aid sped the statewide recovery, but a huge part of the job growth has been concentrated in a few big cities. Raleigh has added 26,000 jobs during the pandemic, Charlotte over 18,000, Durham-Chapel hill north of 11,000, and a few other metro areas have also bested pre-COVID jobs figures. However, the lack of targeted state recovery investments have left a lot of rural counties far behind. The General Assembly thus far has refused to make the kinds of investments needed to support communities that are the furthest from recovery, just as it stiff-armed many rural communities and small towns for years in the wake of the Great Recession. Around half of North Carolina’s counties still have fewer people working than before the market collapse of 2008, and if we keep plowing ahead with the same economic policies, there’s little reason to expect that trend of leaving communities behind to reverse course.

Taken together, these realities provide some insight into a current economic conundrum: The topline figures show an economy with plenty of jobs, fast growth, growing wages, and lots of opportunity, but many people don’t feel economically secure and are very worried about where we’re heading. This apparent contradiction has a lot of different causes, but some of it is rooted in the reality that we still have not fixed an economy that does really well for some folks (like knowledge workers in big cities), but looks decidedly more bleak for many working people.

It's worth taking a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come since the dark days of 2020, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do to realize a state where everyone can thrive.