Editor’s note: Dr. Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Professor and extension economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics of North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He teaches and writes on personal finance, economic outlook and public policy.

Raleigh, NC – It’s hard to believe that half of the 21st century’s first decade is over. The decade has been a challenging one for the economy. First 9/11, then recession and a slow recovery; then Katrina and Rita brought sky-high gas prices.

In North Carolina, we’ve had the added challenge of the transition from our traditional economy (tobacco, textiles and furniture) to new manufacturing (pharmaceuticals, technology, food processing, machinery parts) and the service economy.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the economic progress of North Carolina households this decade has been uneven. Average household income, after adjusting for inflation, fell 8 percent from 2000 to 2005, and the inflation-adjusted average wage rate of all workers was flat.

Of course, as is often said, no one is average. These income statistics mask considerable differences beneath the surface among North Carolina households. So who has moved ahead and who hasn’t?
Some of the biggest winners in the North Carolina economy have been workers with more education, specifically those with a college education. From 2000 to 2005, both the incomes and wage rates (each adjusted for inflation) of full-time workers with a college degree rose. This continues a 25-year national and state trend of college-educated workers doing well in the modern economy.

By comparison, full-time workers with less than a college degree fell behind this decade. Average inflation-adjusted incomes and wage rates dropped for high school dropouts or graduates, and even workers with some college training but no degree. In particular, the wage rate of high school dropouts is off 10 percent and their income is down 16 percent. Not a pretty picture for these households!

We also see differences this decade in the wage rates of workers in different occupations. Only full-time workers in professional occupations (engineers, architects, lawyers, managers, etc.) and sales occupations enjoyed inflation-adjusted improvements in hourly earnings. The pay of other occupations in the service sector, farmers and blue-collar workers fell behind.

What about the long-standing differences in earnings of male and female workers? Have North Carolina women workers made progress in the 21 st century?

The answer is a definite “yes.” Among women working full time, inflation-adjusted hourly wages are up 5 percent this decade, versus no change for full-time male workers. Indeed, in the last 25 years, inflation-adjusted wages of women working full time in North Carolina increased more than twice as fast as for men.

A big reason, as usual, is education. Since 1980, the percentage of North Carolinians with a college degree has increased more rapidly for women than for men. In fact, the percentage of North Carolina women with a college degree doubled in the last two-and-a-half decades, opening up more higher-paying jobs for females.

The message of all these numbers and statistics is clear. This is not your grandparents’ North Carolina – it isn’t even your parents’ North Carolina. The three big Ts – trade, technology and teaching – have made today’s North Carolina more open and more competitive. Individual progress isn’t guaranteed unless workers are prepared with the training and education successful companies need.
You decide how we can take this message to move everyone in our state ahead in the future.

Dr. Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Professor and extension economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics of North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He teaches and writes on personal finance, economic outlook and public policy. His "You Decide" column is provided every two weeks by the Department of Communication Services.