MIKE WALDEN COLUMN: Has the state labor market changed since COVID?

Think about where you were four years ago, in February 2020. My wife and I have birthdays early in the year — mine in late January and hers in late March. To celebrate both, we often do something fun in February or early March.

Mike Walden

For 2020 we planned a weekend trip to New York City to see a Broadway revival of the Neil Simon comedy “Plaza Suite.” My wife is a New Yorker from upstate, and since we first met 50 years ago we’ve always enjoyed theater performances. In February, just as we were getting excited about our trip, concerns over COVID-19 were starting. We brushed them aside and assumed our trip would happen as planned.

In the second week of March, Broadway shut down. Shortly after that, Gov. Roy Cooper announced a statewide stay-at-home order. Thus began our multiyear ordeal with the disease of our lifetimes.

Although COVID is still a threat, our everyday lives today are much closer to normal. Even Broadway has reopened. Still, for many people and for many aspects of our everyday lives, “normal” has been redefined.

The purpose of today’s column is to look at how normal has potentially been changed for the labor market in North Carolina. To accomplish this, I’ve done a deep dive into the pre- and post-data for North Carolina’s labor market. After presenting the results, I’ll let you decide if the apparent changes are positive, negative or a “wash.” On a technical note, I used February 2020 as my pre-COVID benchmark and December 2023 for the post-COVID marker.

One of the best results of my analysis is that the total number of jobs in North Carolina is up 7% from the pre-COVID economy to now. This is more than twice the percentage increase for the national economy. Clearly, North Carolina continues to maintain its position in the post-COVID economy as a fast-growing state for jobs.

But of course, we wouldn’t expect job growth to be the same for all sectors in the economy. Sectors that stand out with much faster growth are education and health care (10%), wholesale trade (13%), financial services (16%), warehousing/transportation (20%) and professional jobs (29%). Again, let me emphasize these are not changes from the low point of the economy during the pandemic. Instead, the numbers show the percentage change in jobs from the high point prior to COVID to today.

The strong increase in professional jobs continues a long-term trend due to more tasks requiring training in high level skills. One question is if this trend will continue as AI (artificial intelligence) becomes more capable and pervasive. The strong increase in transportation and warehousing likely is a result of the changes in how we purchase and receive products.

Two sectors lost jobs. Manufacturing jobs dropped 1% from the pre-COVID level to the end of 2023. Additionally, government jobs in North Carolina lost 2% of their pre-COVID total.

Let’s now look at the geography of job growth in North Carolina. For most of the last four decades, the strongest job growth has been in metro areas, such as the Triangle, Charlotte and Wilmington, while job growth in many non-metro — or rural — regions has been slower or sometimes negative. This difference has contributed to an urban/rural divide in the state.

Interestingly, there appears to have been a slight shift in the geography of jobs thus far in the post-COVID economy. From February 2020 to December 2023, total employment in North Carolina metro regions rose 6.6%, while employment growth in non-metro areas jumped 8.7%. Have lingering pandemic worries motivated more businesses and workers to choose less dense regions, where viruses may be more difficult to spread? Or are the steep prices of real estate and homes in metro areas pushing people to rural regions where prices are more modest?

Lastly, I examined two key factors measuring working conditions: worker hours and worker earnings. Compared now to the pre-pandemic economy, the average worker is clocking about 2% fewer hours per week on the job. This doesn’t seem like much, but it is a distinct change from the decade prior to the pandemic when weekly hours were relatively stable. Of course, there are always differences among economic sectors. Weekly hours increased for construction, but were down more than the average in leisure and hospitality businesses — almost 4%.

There are numerous possible explanations for the decline in the workweek in the post-COVID economy. One is that it’s a perk that companies have used to deal with labor shortages. Another is younger workers, in particular, want a different work/life balance, and so they only look for jobs with fewer hours. Or, companies may be expecting the shorter workweek will create more happiness among their employees, thereby boosting productivity.

But maybe the most notable difference between the pre- and post-COVID labor market has been in earnings — specifically in earnings per hour, often called the wage rate. Overall, the average wage rate in North Carolina increased 22% from the pre-COVID economy to the most recent post-COVID reading.

This was slightly better than the total 20% increase in prices — aka, inflation — during the same time. Yet what is interesting is that higher-paying sectors, like finance and professional jobs, had smaller wage gains than some lower-paying sectors, such as construction and leisure/hospitality firms. Again, it will be important to see if these trends are maintained.

So it appears there have been significant changes to the North Carolina labor market after COVID. How do you rate them — good, bad or mixed? You decide.

Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor Emeritus at North Carolina State University.