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by Jason Gray, Senior Fellow, Research & Policy

What’s the Data?

This month’s data visualization compares the one-year change in employment for all 100 North Carolina counties from May 2016 to May 2017. Counties are sorted into three categories of rural, urban, and suburban, with green indicating gain in employment and red denoting employment loss.
Click on a county in the graph’s top navigation to see the numeric and percentage change in employment for each county for the one-year timeframe.


  • Most encouraging is the solid recovery in the Western Piedmont counties. Burke, Caldwell, Alexander, and Wilkes all showed good employment growth, with Wilkes County being just two-tenths a point below the state average.
  • Of the top-five rural counties with employment growth, two are very rural: Graham and Swain. Both those counties had small total numbers but good percentage growth. The other three are rural counties that are suburbanizing within metro regions: Franklin and Johnston, two counties adjacent to the Triangle, and Brunswick, a high population growth county on the coast.
  • The five counties with the most significant employment loss are all very small and all very rural. However, it should be noted that some larger rural counties still struggled, notably Edgecombe and Nash.
  • Of the six urban counties, Wake and Mecklenburg stand out as the big gainers in the state. Another standout is Forsyth County, but not for the same reasons. Forsyth’s growth rate, while positive, was significantly lower than the state’s other urban counties. 

Our Take

The county classification summary at the bottom of the data visualization aggregates a now familiar story: Overall employment growth in our rural counties continues to significantly lag growth in suburban and urban counties. The nearly even division between rural counties that experienced growth and decline accounts for the anemic 0.4 percent rural growth rate. While conditions are improving, the data suggests a continued uneven economic growth for our rural counties.

Despite this, I am encouraged by what I see. The narrative to pay attention to is within the rural counties – counties formerly in decline are now experiencing employment growth, and that growth is geographically diverse. Challenges remain for half our rural counties, but we can now ask the healthy question about what are the lessons we can learn from growing rural counties.

Bottom line: This is a step in the right direction.