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The Hollowing-Out Of North Carolina’s Middle Wage Jobs

Construction worker.
Naoya Fujii
Flickr - Creative Commons
According to a study by Michael Walden, North Carolina had a decrease in 'middle pay' jobs compared to the nation's increase.

Nationally the number of people employed in middle-wage jobs rose by 6 percent between 2001 and 2015. But the numbers in North Carolina went in the other direction. 

The state experienced a decline in middle-wage jobs accompanied by a large increase in both high and low-paying jobs. The hollowing-out of the middle-earning group was most stark in the mountain, piedmont and coastal plain sections of the state, according toa new research paper by Michael Walden. 

Host Frank Stasio talks with Walden, professor of agricultural and resource economics at North Carolina State University, about North Carolina’s loss of middle-wage jobs and what the shifting employment dynamics portend for the state. 


On regional job patterns within North Carolina:

I did find what I categorize as extreme hollowing-out [in] several regions. Most of them were more rural in nature, [and they] follow the same pattern of increases at the two ends and declines in the middle. But it was just more exacerbated. And I think this makes sense if you drive around North Carolina. If you’re aware of what’s happened with the North Carolina economy in the last 20 or 30 years. Particularly with the loss of manufacturing jobs – which is classified in my classification system as a middle-paying industry … We’ve lost roughly 300,000 textile and apparel jobs. We lost cigarette manufacturing jobs. We’ve lost furniture jobs as well as others in those middle-paying areas. And a lot of those [are] in rural and mountainous small-town places ...  Many of those small town and rural areas, they really don’t have the resources to cope with that situation. So I think that was one of the more daunting findings that I looked at. 

On the impact of middle-wage job losses:

My first job was a dollar an hour, and I worked in various kinds of manual jobs for about seven or eight years. But I always wanted to get ahead, so I went to school and climbed up the ladder. But if there’s not many of those middle rungs in the income ladder, it makes it a little harder. If you’re at the bottom of the ladder in terms of pay and you think, ‘Gee, if I want to get ahead I’ve got to leap all the way to the top to improve.’ So that’s one aspect. And of course sociologists, political scientists, others talk about the middle class – now we’ll use that broader term – being sort of a glue between the upper and lower classes. I think politically there are many who have looked at the 2016 presidential election and made some comments about the impact of what we’re talking about on those election returns … The bigger concern is we don’t see any trends that are going to stop what I found in my research from 2001 to 2015. If anything, we worry that this hollowing-out may become even more pronounced. 

On what the state could do to address the loss of middle-wage jobs:

We’ve got to recognize there’s an issue. And we do have an issue of job creation – where jobs are being created, what kind of training you need for those jobs. Number two, I think what the state needs to do a little better, or academicians need to do a little better, is more minutely track where jobs are being created and where jobs are not being created. And then point three is, I think this is going to put a lot of pressure, Frank, on our institutions of higher learning – community colleges, four-year universities. Because they’re going to have to respond quickly, I think, to the changing jobs that are in demand and hopefully new jobs being created  – move resources around, which is not easy at a university level, and work more closely with businesses.  

Jennifer Brookland is the American Homefront Project Veterans Reporting Fellow. She covers stories about the military and veterans as well as issues affecting the people and places of North Carolina.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.