IBM will expand a mortgage-processing center and hire 600 workers over the next four years, the company and  Gov. Mike Easley announced Tuesday.

IBM will invest $2.4 million in the new center, which will receive a “mortgage academy” for employee training. The company, which is having its annual meeting in Charlotte, also announced an increase in its quarterly dividend.

A group of IBM protestors picketed the meeting, protesting off-shoring of jobs and cuts in pay for some employees.

The state helped land the facility with a Job Development Investment Grant, or JDIG. If IBM creates all the jobs called for in the JGID agreement, it would receive more than $9.7 million in tax rebates based on workers’ wages.

The center will be part of IBM Lender Business Process Services, an IBM subsidiary. The group already has 68 people based at its headquarters in Charlotte.

“Companies such as IBM continue to locate and expand in North Carolina because they find a business-friendly atmosphere along with a dedicated, well-trained work force,” Easley said in a statement. “Our commitment in these areas has North Carolina consistently recognized by national business publications such as Forbes, Chief Executive and Site Selection as a premier location for companies to do business and succeed in the global economy.”

The average wages for the new employees will be $59,000 plus benefits.

“The strong business climate of North Carolina and a talent pool rich in the skills that we require make Charlotte a natural location as we grow our Lender Business Process Services business,” said Greg Sullins, executive director of the subsidiary. “As clients continue to turn to IBM to transform their mortgage-origination operating model, we are excited about partnering with Gov. Easley to expand our presence in North Carolina and meet that growing demand.”

The state’s Economic Investment Committee approved the JDIG for IBM on Tuesday.

At the annual  meeting, IBM’s board  increased the dividend despite a souring economy, reflecting the technology company’s confidence that it can thrive even with an uncertain economy. The board upped the quarterly dividend to 50 cents per share. For the past four quarters, it had been 40 cents per share.

The move comes two weeks after Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM reported a 26 percent jump in profit and raised its earnings forecast for the year. The company also plans to spend $12 billion buying back its shares in 2008.

IBM shares rose 69 cents to $122.38 in midday trading.

About a dozen IBM retirees and union members picketed outside the shareholder meeting to point out IBM’s offshoring practices and its recent cuts in base pay for some U.S. technical employees.

Inside, shareholders passed one proposal the company had opposed. The measure, which got 57 percent support, would let investors call special meetings between the annual gatherings. Advocates said the rule would help shareholders hold management more accountable.