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Charlotte region joblessness: The big, and painful, picture

Waiting in line at the North Carolina Employment Security Office.

The regular announcements of unemployment numbers tend to focus on short-term changes and specific locations.  It can be challenging to make sense of trends in unemployment over longer periods or between geographical regions.  How is the Charlotte region holding up in this important measure?  The answer: not well.

The June release of N.C. Employment Security Commission (NCESC) data shows widespread increases in unemployment across the state.  [New national and state figures will be released Thursday by the Bureau of Labor statistics (BLS) and will be available for analysis on http://ri.uncc.edu].  Patterns in the June 2011 NCESC data (see map here) show that the Asheville area, Boone, the Triangle and several coastal and northeastern counties in the state have the state’s lowest unemployment rates.  Of the urban areas in North Carolina, Charlotte and Greensboro fare the worst in this measure. 

Looking at the Charlotte region (defined here as 14 counties in North and South Carolina surrounding Charlotte), the pattern in recent months has been of generally higher unemployment than either state’s overall rate (click here to replicate this chart on the Regional Indicators website and use the tools to do your own analysis).

This short video, using innovative visualization software,* shows the trend in unemployment in the past decade within the 14-county region. 

The interactive visualization tool, called Open eXplorer, shows the dramatic change in unemployment that swept the region from low, single-digit rates mid-decade to dramatic increases by 2009 across the region.  These data show that throughout the decade, Cabarrus, Mecklenburg and Union counties had consistently lower unemployment rates compared to other counties.  Other trends include the change in Lancaster, Rowan and York from lower-than regional average rates to higher rates by the end of the decade. 

If you would like to try using the interactive tool yourself click here. “Preloaded Stories” listed on the right side of the application will give several examples of the ways the tool can be used. (Warning: Can be addictive to data nerds.)

Comparing the Charlotte metro area unemployment to other benchmark metros around the country puts into some context the struggles the region has faced as the decade progressed.  From middle of the pack on unemployment measures in 2000, to just higher than average in January 2005, to highest among the benchmark cities in April 2011 (click here to see the data), the Charlotte metro area has seen the jobs situation deteriorate over the decade in comparison to these selected cities. 

During this same period of time, however, other indicators have been more positive.  Population growth has kept pace with the benchmark  metro regions.  Nationally, Charlotte’s population growth has been strong.  Per capita income has consistently been above both states’ rates from 2000 through the decade (click here to see the data), although the advantage narrowed by 2009.  As the Charlotte region struggles back from an extremely difficult economic setback, unemployment will continue to be a critical indicator to watch.  The new Regional Indicators website will offer updated data across a range of themes to help make sense of complex changes facing our region.

John Chesser

Special thanks to Carlton Gideon, a graduate student in Geography at UNC Charlotte, for his work on the Open eXplorer application. 

Photograph by Nancy Pierce

*Software developed by Norrköping Visualization Centre at Linkoping University, Sweden, in cooperation with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and used here with permission from NCcomVA.