“You ain’t from around here, are you?”
This question may not be grammatically correct but it is an increasingly accurate observation about our state. According to the Carolina Population Center, a valuable research resource at UNC Chapel Hill, 43 percent of our state population was born elsewhere and that percentage swells to nearly one-half when measuring just adults.
North Carolina is growing at a rapid rate, presenting both good news and challenges. Between 2016-17 our population grew 1.1 percent, about 117,000 new residents. That’s more than any year since 2010. Thirty-two of our 100 counties saw increases in population, however 34 lost population. In the first half of this decade, 53 percent of new residents moved to Mecklenburg, Wake or Durham counties, but in 2016-17 the two fastest-growing counties percentage-wise were Brunswick (3.6 percent) and Pender (3.5 percent), ideal locations for retirees seeking coastal homes. Next came Johnston (2.9 percent) and Cabarrus (2.6 percent), chosen because of their proximities to the Raleigh and Charlotte metro areas. Currituck also increased 2.6 percent, again desirable for retirees.
Not only are we growing in numbers but also in gray hair. Those over 65 years of age account for about 15 percent of our population today, projected to increase to 21 percent over the next decade or so. During that same period our median age will increase from 37 to 40 and our working age population will shrink from 62 to 58 percent of our people.
Drilling deeper, we recognize that our state’s economy has slowly but steadily improved from The Great Recession, however our unemployment rate continues to be a bit higher than the national average. One reason for this is due to the widening skills gap in our workforce. The Hunt Institute reports that 59 percent of all current jobs require some level of post-secondary education, however only 34 percent of our current over-25 workforce has more than a high school diploma. We obviously need to do better providing the skill sets our employers need now and in the future.
We boast wonderful natural resources and a great climate, making North Carolina an ideal destination location for people to choose to live. Added to these assets are wonderful universities and outstanding community colleges capable of providing the education and vocation instruction needed. We have world-class medical care, even though it is unevenly available in more rural sections, and unquestionable recreational and cultural resources for residents.
We have prided ourselves on being a “good government” state, however that reputation is a bit tarnished of late. North Carolina’s infrastructure is aging and in desperate need of repairing and expanding to meet the growing needs. Unlike many states, our state’s finances are sound, with adequate reserves to meet emergencies. But like the federal government, we have allowed ourselves to become sidetracked with rancor and partisanship, often leading to stagnation, costly court battles and divisiveness. We have a cadre of politicians who know how to get elected, but fall short of the leadership needed to unite and motivate people in a positive direction. Perhaps our biggest single need is for better leadership.
At various times in our past, North Carolina has been labeled either the “Rip Van Winkle” state or the “Dixie Dynamo.” Which will it be going forward? The answer depends on us.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues airing on UNC-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.