Last month on the front of the local section of the March 14th paper, Richard Stradling and David Raynor combined on a story based on census figures. The top of the story noted that the Triangle was among the fastest-growing places in the nation. But it also said that 47 of the state’s 100 counties have lost population since 2010.
Basically, it's tough to fight geography and history. When industrialization came to North Carolina, it came in a funny way. In the northeast and midwest, industry was concentrated in big cities. In North Carolina, the textile companies settled in small towns. There were textile mills all over North Carolina, so even though our state became one of the most industrialized in the nation, it did so in a very decentralized way.
There were some good and not so good reasons for this. Water power was an early energy source, and so you wanted to set up the mill near a river or stream. And for folks in rural areas who were barely surviving on small farms, a factory job in a company town had its appeal.
So generation after generation worked in the mill, and families all over North Carolina grew up in small towns centered around the mills. The factory owners had a hard-working, pliant workforce far from the temptations of the big city and not easily organized by labor unions. If you were hard-working and had a strong back, you didn't need much education to support a family.
And then, in the 1970s, the mill jobs started going overseas, first a trickle, then a torrent. I remember this well. I was a reporter in a mill town in Southwest Virginia, and thousands of jobs disappeared.
That's globalization for you. The price of cheap sweaters was a hollowing out of North Carolina's rural economy. Here we are, now, 40 years on, and it is still happening.
It is not a new theme that there are two North Carolinas, but it's one thing to talk about it and it's another thing to see the map. In the paper, on newsprint, the counties that lost population were shaded in gray, and the counties that grew were shaded in green. Wake County is green. Even as gloomy as we get, we're in the green. Since 2010, Wake's population has grown 5 percent, Mecklenburg about the same.
Anyway, today the state unemployment numbers came out. The state jobless rate is 9.2 percent, as of March, one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. That's what happens when a big industrial state de-industrializes. But this number understates how bad things are in the former mill villages. The Triangle's jobless rate, seasonally adjusted, was 7.2 percent. More than half the counties in the state have double-digit jobless rates.
Which is why they are losing people.
I honestly don't know what can, or should, be done. There's a lot of infrastructure out there in the counties that are emptying out. Water and sewer plants, highways, rail. There are a lot of people who want to work, but there aren't enough jobs, particularly the old industrial jobs.
Education might be part of the answer. Over at the UNC System, they have adopted a strategic plan to raise the number of people in North Carolina with bachelor's degrees. That's kind of a long-haul approach. Obviously, if more people get educated, some may come back home to Scotland County or Edgecomb County and start businesses and put a charge under the local economy. Maybe. Or they'll leave App or ECU or State and buy a house in Cary, and visit Rocky Mount or Laurinburg at Christmas.
Twice a day, I drive by a big MetLife billboard seeking workers for the hundreds of jobs that are soon coming to the Triangle. I'm guessing there are billboards in Charlotte, where MetLife is also moving down jobs from the Northeast.
The state is going to shell out a lot of money in incentives for those jobs, jobs that are coming to the fastest-growing, lowest-unemployment regions of our state. And things will get progressively better in the urban areas, islands of green in a state with too much gray.
--Dan Barkin, senior editor