County’s growing economy, location boosts optimism


Large-scale layoffs among U.S. technology companies — including more than 58,000 cuts in January alone — and recession fears are painting a gloomy jobs forecast across the U.S.

Not here, though.

That’s even after 3M Co., which owns a 95,000-sq.-ft. plant just south of Pittsboro, became the latest company to announce layoffs. In its case, 3M said two weeks ago it would cut 2,500 manufacturing jobs — just over 2.6% of its workforce — after seeing its profits in the last fiscal year drop from $1.34 billion to $541 million.

The company didn’t say where jobs would be eliminated. Given rising interest rates and a widespread slowdown in the housing boom that’s helped drive the economy since mid-2020, though, the Chatham plant — it produces materials used in making asphalt shingles — could be a target.

200,000 jobs gone

3M isn’t alone: rising interest rates, inflation and a pullback from a pandemic-driven hiring splurge has led some of the nation’s largest tech companies to cut payrolls. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, announced recently it was cutting 12,000 jobs — about 6% of its workforce. It joined Amazon (18,000), Facebook parent company Meta (11,000), Microsoft (10,000), Twitter (4,000) and IBM (3,900) in making job cuts.

Technology firms have eliminated nearly 200,000 jobs since the start of 2022, according to Layoffs.fyi, which tracks the tech industry. Many of those 58,000 January layoffs came from companies that underwent hiring binges in the latter part of 2020 and 2021.

“We hired for a different economic reality than the one we face today,” Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in a note to employees posted on the company’s website.

A different reality here

But that’s tech. The reality in Chatham County looks different, observers in the county contend — and it’s not just because of the large-scale hiring VinFast and Wolfspeed plan here.

“Our existing industries, along with those throughout N.C., are having some challenges with attracting workforce,” said Michael Smith, the president of the Chatham Economic Development Corporation. “We continue to work with Central Carolina Community College and the school system to find ways to help educate the public on what jobs are available, and the free training that exists to help people gain new skills to then work for a number of our industries here in Chatham County.”

VinFast, an electric vehicle manufacturer, and Wolfspeed, which makes semiconductors — and their combined 2022 announcements, bringing $9 billion in investment and 9,000 new planned jobs here — are only a part of Chatham’s 2023 formula, he said. In addition to workforce training provided by CCCC, the county has the benefit of the large number of four-year colleges and universities in close proximity, highly-trained military personnel leaving Ft. Bragg and new residents seeking opportunity. They contribute to making the region, and the state, attractive for those who are hiring.

“North Carolina gained the third-most new residents [in the U.S.] in 2022 and we do not see that trend changing,” Smith said. “The new jobs we have announced, our great quality of life here in Chatham County, the Chatham County School system, the award-winning CCCC and the growth to come over the next several years — they’re all positive reasons for our citizens to be hopeful for this new year.”

‘The brightest horizon’

Still, the new jobs projected for Chatham (not including 300 at FedEx’s shipping hub under construction near the future home of VinFast) in the coming years are certainly a boost and a safeguard. Mike Fox, the president and CEO of the Piedmont Triad Partnership, paints a sunny employment picture — beginning with this year.

“We see the brightest horizon for Chatham County and the Carolina Core region in 2023,” he said. “With state and national attention on the record-breaking year of new job and capital investment attraction, the job opportunities in Chatham County are more well-known than ever.”

Economist Mike Walden, the Reynolds Distinguished Professor Emeritus at N.C. State, told the News + Record he’s predicting a “mild and short” recession at the end of 2023, and that he sees the local unemployment rate “rising between 1 and 2 percentage points.”

It’s a jump he described as “very modest.”

“Long-run economic growth in the Triangle region — including Chatham County — is still very robust,” Walden said.

Economist and consultant Ted Abernathy, the managing Partner of Economic Leadership LLC, develops economic and workforce strategies, said lower inflation and repair of supply chain issus are making 2023 look strong.

"North Carolina is among the top states for job growth over the past several years," he told the News + Record. "The Chatham market is part of one of the 10 best regional economies in the country and I don’t think anyone is projecting the Research Triangle will be any less competitive over the next 10 years.

"We are in a time of rapid, often disruptive, technology transformation, so there will be winners and losers among various companies and specific technologies," he added. "But the regional fundamentals — excellent business climate, expanding educated workforce, good infrastructure and great innovation assets — should result in a great regional economy for the foreseeable future."

The Core’s boost

The county benefits from being a part of the Carolina Core, a 120+ mile stretch of central North Carolina stretching from west of Winston-Salem to Fayetteville, all along future Interstate 685. It includes Greensboro and High Point, has close proximity to Charlotte and the Research Triangle, and is home to four megasites — including Moncure’s Triangle Innovation Point, where VinFast will build, and Siler City’s Chatham Advanced Manufacturing site, where Wolfspeed’s newly-named John Palmour Manufacturing Center for Silicon Carbide will be located.

Attention from Chatham’s record-setting announcements and the innovation VinFast and Wolfspeed will drive, Fox believes, will keep the interest, and the focus, on Chatham and the region for years to come.

“I believe that existing companies there will benefit from the talent and suppliers that those two ‘mega-projects’ can attract,” Fox said.

“We hear from the state that North Carolina’s pipeline of potential new business is strong, and with well-positioned industrial real estate like the Chatham-Siler City Advanced Manufacturing site” — where there’s still 1,700 acres available for development — “there is no reason to doubt that additional employers will be attracted to the excellent location and business environment in Chatham County,” he added. “While we are hearing that recruiting and retaining talent remains a concern of our employers, we know that growing the regional economy, especially with innovative technology employers, is the path to continued prosperity for our region.”

The role of CCCC, universities

Like Smith, Fox noted the contributions of nearby community colleges and universities — which are responding in their own ways to the state’s positioning in the job market.

They are also working to “attract talent to their programs, some developed with these innovative new employers,” Fox said. And while massive projects like VinFast and Wolfspeed are driving the training programs, there is no reason, he said, “that other local employers cannot benefit from the new and growing training programs serving Chatham County.”

“Anytime we are investing resources in upskilling our residents,” Fox said, “this is an investment that is bound to pay off in the short term and long run.”

Dr. Lisa Chapman, the president of CCCC — with campuses in Chatham, Lee and Harnett counties — said she’s not seeing broad impact from the tech layoffs, noting the immediate staffing needs some local and regional companies have.

“Our region has a diversity of employers who have talent needs now and talent need projections going forward,” she said. “The projects [VinFast, Wolfspeed] obviously will include growth of varied suppliers, but in addition to that we have a growing biotech sector as well as ongoing needs in the construction and logistics-related industries. Healthcare workforce also continues to be a need in our region.”

Chapman added it was important to recognize CCCC’s footprint area has “strong incumbent employers who have made this region their home for many years and they have excellent careers in which our local residents can engage.”

“Most of these careers require education and training beyond high school, but not all of them require the same type of credential,” she said. “We want to ensure our community knows about and is prepared to participate in these opportunities. The college is working alongside our secondary and university partners to provide the needed education options.”

Workforce development

CCCC’s and Chatham County Schools’ commitment to adding value to workforce development can only help keep Chatham’s future positive, according to Cindy Poindexter, the president of the Chatham Chamber of Commerce.

“Much of the work that needs to be done does center around educating the public about opportunities and training available and working with regional and local partners,” she said. “We all need to part of the solution. There has been a bit of a stigma associated around manufacturing jobs, but these jobs create great opportunities and room for advancement.”

The national seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate was 3.5% in December. The Bureau of Labor Statistics put Chatham’s December unemployment rate at just over 3%, up from 2.8% last January. It had reached a recent high of 9.3% in April of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered many businesses

Even so, Chatham’s wage gap — which contributes to the county’s affordable housing conundrum and high food insecurity in some pockets of the county — tempers the jobs picture, at least for now. Helping it: VinFast said its average annual wages will be $51,100, while Wolfspeed said its employees would earn an average of $77,753 annually. Both are well above existing average wages in the western portion of Chatham of around $41,600, which is more than $15,000 a year under average wages across North Carolina.

Knowing that the jobs picture will improve, and bring higher wages, is even more reason to be optimistic.

“Chatham County has much to offer,” Poindexter said. “We have a bright future ahead of us.”

Bill Horner III can be reached at bhorner3@chathamnr.com or on Twitter @billthethird.

Chatham County Siler City Pittsboro jobs economy economic+development 2022 2023 outlook Michael+smith Lisa+chapman ted+abernathy Carolina+CORE