The big bounce back?

Western Wake County adding jobs rapidly

October 15, 2012 

  • Cary’s five biggest employers, as of June: SAS Institute: 5,031 employees Verizon: 1,700 WakeMed Cary Hospital: 1,195 Town of Cary: 1,168 American Airlines Reservations Center: 1,060 Source: Town of Cary

akenney@newsobserver.com

Jerry Stalls’ new business campus is easy to miss from Chapel Hill Road, but that hasn’t slowed the flow of vans through the parking lot.

Not even the recession put a dent in the steadily growing business, which built a Charlotte outpost in 2010, moved its headquarters to Cary late last year and expanded its payrolls to 43 employees, adding five this year.

“You have 10,000 people a day turning 65 for the next 19 years,” said Stalls, whose business provides wheelchairs, home modifications for handicapped accessibility and vehicles fitted for wheelchair use. “These are people that will utilize a lot of these products.”

Stalls’ ventures, Stalls Medical and Adaptive Vans, are riding the ever-increasing demand for health care that also powers the local growth of gargantuan pharmaceutical and life sciences companies. That boom, combined with the expansion of software companies like SAS Institute, is part of the reason western Wake County has an improving job market while North Carolina languishes near dead last.

The state’s 9.7 percent unemployment rate in August was the fifth-highest in the country, yet the borders of Triangle suburbs were ringed with industrial and commercial construction slated to bring thousands of new jobs to the area.

On Davis Drive, neon-vested workers canvassed the 190,000 square feet of Biogen Idec’s nearly finished building last week, scrambling to install exercise equipment and cubicle furniture on what used to be a “parking lot and green grass,” said company spokesman Mike McBrierty.

Six miles down I-40, SAS has broken ground on a new tower that will house 650 employees for a market growing even faster than drugs: data analysis. And at the other end of the Triangle Expressway, Novartis Vaccines is ramping up production at its billion-dollar Holly Springs facility.

Together they represent the confluence of high-tech industry that has buoyed jobs growth here. Unemployment rates in the area hover at twice their pre-recession lows, but Raleigh-Cary has added about 15,000 jobs this year, and Cary this summer was home to more employed people than ever before.

Cary, for example, has recovered almost twice as many jobs as it lost during the recession in 2008 and 2009, when the town’s working population shrunk by 2,900.

“To be able to say that any area has recovered all the jobs it lost in the recession is very, very unique,” said Michael Walden, an N.C. State University economist. “Nationally, we’ve only returned about half of those jobs.”

Cary’s unemployment rate for the year is about 6 percent, while Apex is averaging 5.9 percent, beating out four-fifths of the country’s metropolitan areas.

“We’re not recession-proof, and we’ve seen that dramatically in this recession in this region,” Walden said. “I think what you’ve also seen, though, is that at any point in time this area’s better off than the state and the nation.”

More tellingly, Cary and Wake County are now adding jobs at a rate three times faster than the state, which is seeing its unemployment rates recover at the same pace as the national average. And in Wake County, some of the biggest splashes come from an expanding cluster of software and life sciences companies.

Maintaining ecosystems

The area’s ecosystems of computing and health care-related businesses are sustained by low costs for companies, from housing to infrastructure, and a steady supply of educated workers. That’s what brought the new 40-employee Kenexa office to Cary.

“We looked at Boston, North Carolina and California,” said Steve O’Brien, whose office is charged with recruiting employees for local life sciences companies. “North Carolina had the best combination of talent, skill and cost. ... The concentration of highly talented people and organizations in the Cary region is extremely high.”

To O’Brien, the greatest challenge to job growth here is whether the area will remain affordable and liveable as Cary and its fellow suburbs reach their borders in the coming decades.

“Cary’s been going for a lot of growth – does that happen to infinity?” he said. “So what does the end state look like? ... Do the cost of living indexes begin rising because of demand?”

In the short term, there’s also the question of if and when the area’s unemployment rates will return to their pre-crash lows. In fact, the rates might be bogged down by the area’s success relative to the rest of the country, according to Ted Abernathy, director of the Southern Growth Policies Board.

“Our job growth is going faster than most anyone else’s, but if you keep being ranked on the front page (as a strong growth region), people get a U-haul and come,” he said.

Job openings attract new residents, making Cary and Raleigh the ninth and 10 fastest-growing cities in the United States in 2010 and 2011, according to U.S. Census data.

More neighbors, in turn, mean more competition for those jobs.

Kenney: 919-460-2608 or twitter.com/KenneyOnCary

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