While the Republican-controlled General Assembly, Gov. Pat McCrory and many across the state welcomed the news of the overall unemployment figures dropping sharply to 2009 levels, there are others who are not ready to don party hats just yet.
The improvement in the top-line unemployment figure a quick drop from the 8.9 percent logged in July to 7.4 percent is, on its face, great news for anyone holding office based in Raleigh and for North Carolinas standing in the union. But a closer look into the figures presents a long and bumpy road still ahead for the Tar Heel state, marked with mixed figures from the most recent December report.
First, although the number of people employed rose by about 20,000, bringing total employment to just over 4.3 million, 8,100 actually left the labor force, drawing skeptical looks from independent analysts. Second, total nonfarm employment in the state has actually fallen by approximately 6,500 positions, again raising questions about the source of the gains. And, with the expiration of unemployment support, many job-seekers might have been pushed either to take a less-than-fitting role or decide to embark on an early retirement.
But it is the rural counties like Scotland, with an eye-popping 14 percent unemployment figure, that really stand out like a black eye on the face North Carolina projects to the world.
While this all certainly doesnt make for a nice start for 2014, the opportunity for innovative, private-sector-supported programs and initiatives is ripe, and this plays well into McCrorys wheel house and political platform.
While the administrative and strategic consolidation that led to the dissolution of the nonprofit Rural Development Center into the larger N.C. Department of Commerce does have its merits, the negative feedback it caused mainly focused on the removal of a more down-to-earth, local and tailored approach to economic development outside of North Carolinas urban hubs, which are bolstered by universities.
This gap can and should be filled by an initiative led by McCrory similar in structure, scope and support as the program quickly gaining momentum in the Volunteer State to our west. Creatively called Jobs4TN, what the program and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam certainly lack in branding more than makes up with innovative policymaking and localized focus.
Along with reviewing regulations, the program established nine regional Job Base Camps that have directors in place to focus on industries and clusters of existing businesses to build upon. In addition to a strong show of support for local entrepreneurship, the Jobs4TN program also made available $50 million to support Tennessees research hubs and businesses that focus on innovation, commercialization, investment, technology and entrepreneurship ... to raise innovation-based economic development and drive growth in the creation of knowledge-based jobs.
This program, or one with a similar approach, meshes well with McCrorys business-led economic development platform (and resume) and, not to mention, helps to further engage rural and other high unemployment regions with leaders in Raleigh. And perhaps most importantly for any Tar Heel, this helps to encourage sustainable, organic job growth, especially when paired with job training programs and larger business recruiting efforts.
Regardless of affiliation, the time to effect real change and lay the groundwork for a stronger North Carolina is now. It doesnt need to be exactly like Tennessees program, but it does need to be innovative and comprehensive. We owe it to our neighbors because we are all in this together.
Patrick Mallory of Raleigh is a risk-management consultant.