DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Research Triangle Park was a perfect choice for President Barack Obama's Monday speech in North Carolina, laying out his plans to get more Americans back to work. High-tech companies here are adding hundreds of workers during a sluggish recovery, fed by top flight universities and research facilities.
Take a few steps back, though, and the picture becomes more complicated. North Carolina's job market is ailing at least as much as the rest of the country. Major swathes of the state were feeling the hard times long before the Great Recession began in December 2007.
The areas that Obama and his Jobs Council have identified as crucial for economic growth — investment in research, job training, a focus on science and technology education — make sense for areas like the Triangle, observers say, but they won't do much good in the short term for parts of the state still reeling from the loss of manufacturing and other traditional industries.
"It really depends on which North Carolina you're going to talk about," said John Quinterno, founder of South by North Strategies, a Chapel Hill research consulting firm specializing in economic affairs. "The Triangle area is really one metro area in the state, and really in the country, that has held up better than others. Many other parts of the state, on the other hand, have essentially been in recession for a decade or longer."
North Carolina once attracted thousands of manufacturing jobs by offering competitive advantages to businesses based in other states: low taxes, light regulation and laws that have helped make the state the least unionized in the country. But in a global economy, other countries can easily beat the state at that game, making the focus on research, innovation and a highly-skilled, well-educated work force all the more important.
"We're not going to race to the bottom in wages, labor standards or environmental standards," said 4th District U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat. "We've got to figure out what our strengths are instead."
The state's overall unemployment rate stood at 9.7 percent in April, but joblessness is distributed unevenly. In some western and northeastern counties, unemployment rates have remained stubbornly in the double digits for months, while counties in the Research Triangle are significantly below the state average.
Many of the hardest-hit counties have seen job losses of 10 percent or more since the start of the Great Recession, according to the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center. Overall, the state has shed nearly 467,000 jobs since the recession began.
Speaking to an audience at Cree Inc. in Durham, a manufacturer of LED light technology, Obama said the booming business is an example of what the rest of the country can achieve by focusing on innovation, training and education.
"We're going to get there," the president told the crowd. "I know that, because I've seen it here at this company."
Raleigh-based Elster Solutions is one of those innovative, high-tech businesses singled out by the president. Its CEO, Mark Munday, was one of the participants in a Monday morning discussion on the energy industry with members of Obama's Jobs Council. In the last year, the company, which makes metering products for use in the utilities industry, has added 115 new employees, to reach an area work force of more than 600.
But even Munday has concerns, especially about mixed messages from Washington. Uncertainty in everything from tax policy to health care legislation makes businesses less likely to risk capital in the kind of research, innovation and hiring championed by Obama, Munday said.
"We need to remove that uncertainty," he said. "Anything that impacts your decision to hire an employee or invest in a project is an area where you need clarity."
Some observers worry that North Carolina's economy has been essentially stagnant in the last decade. Quinterno said that the booming growth in the 1990s flattened out in the following decade, and was basically wiped out by the recession. Alexandra Forter Sirota, director of the Budget and Tax Center, noted that some of the largest projected job growth in the next decade is in the service industry or low-paying office jobs.
"If we don't see policymakers investing in research and job creation to create good quality jobs, that picture of two North Carolinas, or multiple North Carolinas, will continue to be the norm and that obviously will represent a challenge for the state as a whole," she said.
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