Editor’s note: This story is part of the “Jobs Conundrum” special report from WRAL TechWire.

RALEIGH – Economists refer to the labor market, first and foremost, as a market.  Employers, seeking workers, offer some form of compensation to recruit or retain employees to their firm.  Participants of the workforce vet and select from available positions, for which they are qualified, for which an offer is made.

A functioning talent market matches employers needing skilled employees with workers who possess those skills, who are also willing to accept the stated compensation for conducting the work.

But that’s a bit simplistic, because there are other factors at play in labor markets, including public policy and prevailing cultural attitudes.

One result: a labor market without equilibrium.

On the one hand, workers seeking work, but unable to find suitable employment at the offered compensation, and on the other, employers seeking workers, competing for highly-skilled workers.


“There is a substantial mismatch in labor markets and a growing labor shortage in many industries,” said Greg Brown, UNC Kenan Institute Professor of Finance.  “Because of the rapid change in economic opportunities in North Carolina, the skills of available workers do not match available jobs.”

That means that many job openings likely require specific skills that are obtained through education or on-the-job training, which doesn’t happen overnight, he added.

The urban divide

Increasingly, the best paying jobs are becoming concentrated in more urban areas, or in rural counties with close proximity to urban centers, which Walden described as a geographic divide.

“Distant rural counties have largely been left out,” said NC State economist Dr. Mike Walden.

Take the labor market data.  In March 2021, the unemployment rate in the Triangle was 4 percent, compared to 3.6 percent in March 2020, and in both of the metropolitan service areas of the Triangle, the size of the labor force increased.

Now, about 40 percent of anticipated job creation from economic development initiatives are anticipated to impact the Triangle, and that’s not including the surrounding counties.

“The pandemic has accelerated the concentration of the state’s economic power in the Triangle,” said Duke University professor John Quinterno.

He pointed out that as of March 2021, the Triangle was home to 21 percent of all of North Carolina’s payroll jobs, compared to March 2007 before the Great Recession when it was home to 19 percent.

Together, the Triangle and Charlotte are now home to 49 percent of the payroll jobs in the state, up from 44 percent in March 2007, he said.

That’s due to a simple understanding of how companies plan their own strategic growth, suggested Chris Chung of North Carolina’s Economic Development Partnership.  Companies select cities, counties, regions, or states, as sites for possible relocation or expansion due to the existing population dynamics and the current state of the talent markets most relevant to their area of focus.

“Think about where a lot of these big announcements in the last 15 months have been, Apple, Google, Centene, and that’s about 7,000 jobs already,” said Chung.  Those locations–Wake County, Durham County, and Mecklenburg County–are regions that have high population sizes, high educational attainment, and other companies that require high-skill training such as software engineering.

For companies with large hiring needs, when they’re seeking a location for expansion or relocation, a region’s talent pool is often approximated with its population size, though this rule of thumb is not always accurate, for instance, Florida has a high population but it’s not necessarily a population of working-age professionals.

“If you’re a Centene, if you’re an Apple, you’ve got to look at the size of the area, and that is going to mean the Triangle, or Charlotte,” said Chung.  “This is why a small town is unlikely to get looked at by a corporation that has a high number of high-skill positions that it will need.”