Attracting businesses and finding the skilled workers to sustain them are top concerns for an influential group of North Carolinians, but the specter of fallout from trade wars and tariffs looms over an otherwise rosy picture.
As part of an ongoing series, a group of 60 North Carolina Influencers — comprised of leaders in the state’s political, business, academic and faith communities — was asked about what they think are the biggest economic issues facing the state.
The Influencers were asked to rank topics including attracting and retaining businesses, improving job skills training, cutting tax rates, increasing wages for lower- and middle class workers, getting jobs to North Carolina’s rural areas and trade tensions resulting from President Donald Trump’s tariffs.
“Jobs follow talent, so policy makers should double down on investment in education and job training,” said Kit Cramer, CEO of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce.
A majority of the survey respondents ranked “attracting and retaining businesses” or “improving job skills training” as the most urgent issues facing North Carolina’s economy. There was broad agreement on those points, though Democrats tended to favor more investment in job training programs and schools while Republicans emphasized the need to keep taxes and regulations low to foster entrepreneurship and a business-friendly climate.
“If we hold business taxes low and avoid a return to past regulatory excesses, N.C. should do just fine,” said former Gov. Jim Martin.
Training workers for 21st century jobs — advanced manufacturing, computer coding, skilled healthcare work — should be a focus for policymakers, many of the Influencers said.
“We have to consistently have a pro-business posture as a state,” said Kandi Deitemeyer, president of Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. “Having a well-skilled and developed talent pipeline for prospective companies will be key to the attraction and sustainability of the companies and jobs.”
No one marked addressing tariffs and trade tensions as the biggest economic concern facing North Carolinians.
But 70 percent of the respondents said they’re concerned the new tariffs and brewing trade wars with countries from Canada to China will hurt the state’s economy, and that they don’t support the president’s aggressive tactics. Agricultural goods like soybeans and pork are major North Carolina export products that could be negatively impacted in a trade war with China, and the state’s building industry could be hurt by tariffs on steel and lumber, for example.
According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce $1.1 billion in North Carolina exports are threatened, including a half-billion dollars worth of exports to Canada and $350 million to China.
“Trade conflicts with our large trading partners hurt business and the people those businesses employ by depressing economic activity,” said Frank Emory, a lawyer in Charlotte and chairman of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. “North Carolina’s exports will be burdened by the tariffs imposed in response to the president’s decisions. Similarly, the products we purchase will be more expensive.”
Others were more blunt in their assessment of the president.
“He (Trump) has no idea what he is doing,” said James Coleman, a Duke Law professor and co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke Law. “International trade is complex and requires thoughtful analysis and diplomacy, two things (Trump) is incapable of.”
Hugh McColl Jr., former Bank of America CEO, said he thinks tariffs and a trade war will ultimately hurt the state’s economy.
“It will cause long term damage to our markets and will take jobs offshore,” said McColl. “It will raise prices for goods not made here.”
But some survey respondents said they support the president’s policies, which they believe will ultimately help U.S. companies.
“Trade imbalances have been ignored for decades,” said former Gov. Pat McCrory. “In the short term, there will be pain in targeted industries and with inflation. In the long term, it will help manufacturing and wages.”
Others agreed that the president’s policies will even out unfair trade practices, and that potential negative impacts are worth it to do so.
“I fully support President Trump on trade,” said Paul Valone, president, Grass Roots North Carolina. “In the interest of leveling the playing field for the long term, it is even acceptable to suffer short-term hardship in some industries.”
Helping rural areas
Few of the N.C. Influencers who responded to the survey ranked getting jobs to rural areas of the state as the top issue facing North Carolina’s economy, but more than half ranked it as one of the top three issues. As urban counties like Wake and Mecklenburg have boomed, many of the state’s rural counties are losing population and struggling to grow.
Investing in those areas should also be a priority for North Carolina, and rural counties need the infrastructure to help them keep up with a fast-changing economy, the Influencers said.
“Rural residents need access to high speed broadband internet,” said Vivian Howard, a chef and television host who advocates for eastern North Carolina. “It’s the infrastructure of the 21st century, and without it communities are left behind. Plus it’s impossible to attract or retain industry in an area where broadband isn’t pervasive.”
Catherine Lawson, a Raleigh attorney, said the state should focus on retraining programs to help people in rural areas that have lost jobs, as well as provide more incentives for industries to relocate to rural counties.
“Economic opportunity shouldn’t be the privilege of those who happen to live in urban centers,” she said.
Investing more in rural areas could ultimately reduce the sharp political economic and social divide between dense, urban counties and the state’s rural areas, some respondents said.
“N.C.’s rural divide has existed for more than a century,” said former Gov. Bev Perdue. “Our state must significantly invest in roads, technology, energy costs, and incentives for poor, rural areas across the state.”
Nancy Webb and Charlotte Observer staff writer Gavin Off contributed.
About this series
This is the third in a series of surveys The Charlotte Observer, The (Raleigh) News & Observer and The (Durham) Herald-Sun will conduct with the Influencers through the November elections to help focus media and candidate discussion around the policy issues of most importance to North Carolinians. Look for the next report in two weeks.