Editor’s note: Dr. Mike Walden is a Reynolds Distinguished Professor Emeritus at North Carolina State University.  His new book, Re-Launch, discuses how the post-pandemic economy could improve family life. Walden wrote this column exclusively for WRAL TechWire. He is a frequent TechWire contributor.


RALEIGH – In March, North Carolina set a new employment record, with over 4.7 individuals working.  Our state is among only a handful of states which now have more people working than prior to the pandemic.

I think there are a couple of key factors behind this good news.

One is simply that North Carolina has picked up where it left off before COVID-19 hit the nation.  For several decades prior to the COVID recession, North Carolina’s economy had been one of the top-expanding ones in the country.

Mike Walden (NCSU photo)

One reason was the state was in the South, where households and companies were moving to escape harsh winters and high costs in the North and Midwest.

Another was the attractiveness of the state’s beaches and mountains to the boom in second-homes and vacation-homes.

A look at the numbers

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, some 4.7 million North Carolinians were working in March. That’s up more than 4% from March 2021, and unemployment is well below 4%.

When the pandemic struck in March 2020, data showed 4.6 million people had jobs in the state.

But that number plunged in April as the pandemic swept the country and world. The employment number plunged to under 4 million and unemployment skyropcketed to more than 14%.

The state now has more than recovered all jobs lost during the pandemic, according to government data, and is one of 13 states to have done so, according to review of BLS data by the Wall Street Journal.

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Finally, North Carolina’s leadership crafted smart and aggressive economic development policies that linked the state’s world-class higher-education system, competitive taxes, and key infrastructure investments to growing sectors such as technology, finance, and pharmaceuticals.

But creators of economic growth and jobs don’t just look back; they also look forward.  Here, North Carolina’s future economy also looks attractive.  Recent projections show the state will add almost 3.5 million people between 2020 and 2050.  The workforce will also become larger, although it will become older.  Companies looking for workers as well as local buyers will find them in North Carolina.

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However, maybe the most telling test to North Carolina’s economic strength comes from the state’s performance during the pandemic.  A newly published study from the National Bureau of Economic Research – a 100-year-old think-tank – calibrated how each state (and D.C.) did on several economic, educational, and morbidity measures during the pandemic.

Combining all measures, North Carolina ranked 13th best among the fifty-one states and D.C. If households and businesses are looking for a “relatively safe state” to live in if another pandemic occurs, then North Carolina has already proved it is among the best.

So, the state’s new job record is something to celebrate.  Still, our state has room to improve.  Among the challenges are offering opportunities for workers to improve their skills and pay, shrinking the urban-rural divide, and dealing with some of the costs of economic growth, such as pollution, traffic congestion, and expensive real estate.

The new post-pandemic economy predicted by some futurists may offer solutions.  If so, then North Carolina will have more opportunities to be at the top.