Commentary: Local officials tout job growth in Winston-Salem, but strong headwinds remain

Algenon Cash

Commentary: Local officials tout job growth in Winston-Salem, but strong headwinds remain
November 21
13:50 2019

By Algenon Cash

City officials are touting figures from the national Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicating employment growth in Winston-Salem is outpacing cities of similar size nationwide.

Metro Winston-Salem posted 3.1% growth in non-farm employment during the 12 months up to August 2019. The rate was considerably lower in neighboring regions – Greensboro (0.3%), Charlotte (2.3%), and Raleigh (1.8%). Job growth in Winston-Salem also beat out the state at-large during the same period – 1.5%.

Like most economic reports, the devil lies in the details. Taking a 12-month snapshot without deep comparison or analyzing long-term trends hardly provides any real insight.

Dig into some of the numbers and the situation is not as bleak in Charlotte as local officials make it sound. For example, look at the average monthly job growth over the past six months (April – September); Charlotte consistently averages 2.5%, Winston-Salem 2.3%.

If you shift the 12-month period to analyze non-farm employment growth up to September 2019 preliminary estimates, then Raleigh doesn’t seem to fare too badly – Raleigh at 3.2%, versus Winston-Salem, 3.3%, with steady growth in Charlotte at 2.3%.

The primary drivers of the 12-month job growth according to the BLS were professional and business service jobs (5.7%), education and health services (4.2%); leisure and hospitality jobs rocketed up 5.8% during the 12-months from August 2018–August 2019.

Many local residents lack the necessary skills for high growth white-collar jobs and often take blue-collar jobs in restaurants and hotels. Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines recently announced a new program that will enable local high school graduates with financial challenges to attend Forsyth Technical Community College for free.

“I believe that allowing our young people to obtain the education and training they need is one way, but an important way, to interrupt the cycle of inter-generational poverty,” said Joines.

I wrote in The Chronicle this past summer that workforce development is one of five critical initiatives required to generate sustainable economic progress locally.  

The College Guarantee program is a major step in the right direction to ensure local workers are fully equipped to take advantage of skilled labor opportunities in Winston-Salem. Undoubtedly many graduates will find jobs or launch companies locally, which further aid the community in retaining a talented workforce or entrepreneurially-minded people.

Kudos to Mayor Joines for having the vision and leadership to make such an impact, not to mention BB&T for committing to fund the community effort over the next six years.

However, the Winston-Salem economy still faces a variety of structural issues that must be addressed and cannot be overshadowed with cherry-picking economic data.

Let’s also take into consideration that a boost in job growth doesn’t necessarily benefit local residents. Hence, the reason the unemployment rate rose from 3.9% to 4.2% during the same period of robust job growth.  

Workers often commute from nearby cities, towns, and counties to work in Winston-Salem, so the increase in employment may not be expanding the local tax base, which provides revenue for government to provide important public services – education, healthcare, and transportation to name a few.

Forsyth County is growing much slower than North Carolina overall. Forsyth County had a population of 379,099 in 2018, a growth of less than 1% since 2017, and just above 8% from 2010 to 2018.

Nevertheless, the state’s entire population grew by 1.1% from 2017 to 2018, and expanded nearly 9% for the period 2010 to 2018. The Charlotte and Triangle areas now account for 70% of population growth – Mecklenburg grew 1.5% and Wake increased by nearly 2% from 2017 to 2018. Compare the larger Charlotte or Triangle metropolitan areas to the greater Triad and the gaps are fairly wide – both areas outpaced our regional growth at twice the rate.

More jobs don’t eradicate poverty either, unless those additional jobs somehow push up wages or motivate workers to increase education to move higher up on the income scale.

Metro Winston-Salem has one of the highest poverty rates in the country and income per person declined to 90.9% of the average for metropolitan areas in 2017, from 93.7% in 2009. Not to mention private sector employment is barely higher than it was in 1999, which was 20 years ago.

Winston-Salem has an average hourly wage of $22.05, about 12% below the national average of $24.98 – also lower than neighboring regions – Charlotte ($24.52) and Raleigh ($25.28).

Average hourly wages can be easily misconstrued because of large outliers. I prefer to focus on median wages because they are not as easily manipulated by high-income earners, who often work in white-collar jobs. The median hourly wage in Winston-Salem is $16.87 an hour, almost $2 below the national average.

Despite the rosy jobs numbers highlighted by local officials, Winston-Salem continues to perform poorly at attracting and retaining talented Millennials, which is a major challenge that must be overcome to grow the population, diversify the community, and expand tax base.

SmartAsset recently announced a list of states where Millennials are moving and North Carolina ranked #5, with a net migration of 18,824, and beat other southern states such as Georgia. Look deeper at the actual cities attracting Millennials – Charlotte (#6), Greensboro (#18), and Raleigh (#23) – completely absent from the list is Winston-Salem. 

We continue to make far-reaching strides in Winston-Salem and undoubtedly we can defeat the challenges on the horizon, but local officials must remain clear-eyed and laser focused on a long-term vision with goals that stretch us.  Let’s not get too giddy about the past 12 months.

Algenon Cash is a nationally recognized speaker and the managing director of Wharton Gladden & Company, an investment banking firm. Reach him at

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