Durham economy on upswing, but ‘we’re not there yet’

Jun. 03, 2014 @ 07:05 PM

Downtown Durham’s workforce has grown, and last year was the third consecutive year of employment growth for the county. But at least one city leader said he doesn’t think “we’re there yet.”

Kevin Dick, director of Durham’s Office of Economic Development, spoke at the 15th State of Durham’s Economy breakfast on Tuesday. To several hundred people gathered for the event, both Dick and Durham Mayor Bill Bell posed the question “are we there yet?”

“My overall thought is that we’re not there yet, wherever ‘there’ is,” Dick said in an interview about the local economy. “I don’t know if anybody’s there yet in terms of -- they have the utopian community -- but I would say that overall, our economy is on the upswing. There are a lot of indicators that we’re back to pre-recession levels and some that are very close.”

Dick pointed to growth in the county’s overall employment in 2013, the third consecutive year of growth.

Referencing data from the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Labor & Economic Analysis Division, his report showed that there was a 6 percent increase in annual average employment from 2010 to 2013.

However, Dick pointed to a decline in the county’s average weekly wage. Durham County’s average weekly wage in 2013 was $1,241, according to data from the commerce department division. That’s down $10 from the average in 2012.

Dick said the decline may be explained by employment gains in lower-paying industries. From 2009 to 2011, the largest job gains were in health care and social assistance sector, wholesale trade, and accommodate and food services, according to the report. The largest losses were in manufacturing and construction in that period.

“I just said two of the top three industries for gains were wholesale trade and retail accommodation and food services,” Dick said. “In those types of industries, people get paid a little bit less.”

Also in the report, he showed that the fastest-job-producing industries projected through 2018 are expected to be ambulatory health care services, administrative and support services, hospitals, computer and electronic product manufacturing, and professional scientific and technical services.

“Again health care is a very substantial industry in terms of (job) growth,” Dick said. “When you have high-tech industry, drivers such as biotechnology and life sciences such as information technology, health care, green jobs and environmental technology, they are going to be supported by service industries,” he said.

Meanwhile, the report pointed to manufacturing as highest-paying industry in total wages last year in the county. Dick said the local presence is in bio-manufacturing, involving the production of pharmaceuticals and agri-products.

The sector accounted for $2.3 billion in wages last year.  Health care and social assistance, professional and technical services, and educational services were the next highest-paying in total wages last year.

Dick applauded the county for its diverse tax base that includes a mix of commercial and residential taxpayers. He pointed to an increase in taxable sales collections from fiscal year 2009 to 2013, in home sales, and positive economic indicators for downtown.

More people are working downtown now compared to 20 years ago, he said. Roughly 3,800 people were working downtown then, he said, compared to an estimated 16,000 now. Dick said that he believes that growth will help fill the new apartment complexes under construction or proposed for downtown.

He said areas of focus going forward are on workforce development, talent and business attraction and recruitment, the business environment, and infrastructure. Investments in modern infrastructure, such as in high-speed broadband connections “lay the foundation” for economic development and growth, he said. And in terms of workforce development, he said city development programs need to be larger to reach more people.