In April, a Swedish plastics manufacturer announced that it would be locating its first U.S. production facility in Gaston County, creating 22 jobs at an average salary of $59,132. That news merited a news release from the state Department of Commerce and a quote from Gov. Roy Cooper.
The announcement was welcome news, especially for Gaston County, but it also puts into perspective just how extraordinary recent announcements about companies coming to the Triangle are. Invitae, a genetic testing company, will bring 374 jobs at $90,000; Fuji Diosynth, a pharmaceutical company, will create 725 new jobs averaging almost $100,000; Google plans to bring a thousand high-paying jobs to Durham. And then there’s the granddaddy of economic development announcements: Apple’s new campus in Research Triangle Park will be home to 3,000 employees earning an average annual salary of $187,000.
North Carolina, a state accustomed to incrementally celebrating new employers and the expansion of existing companies, is now seeing a boom in biomedical and information technology jobs that dwarfs typical job news.
Brooks Raiford, president and CEO at the North Carolina Technology Association, said Apple’s announcement alone may match IBM’s coming to Research Triangle Park in 1965, a historic change that brought thousands of new employees and helped launch RTP as an economic engine. He said winning Apple’s new campus represents “a transformational pivot moment.”
But the surge in tech jobs also raises worries about whether there is such a thing as too much good news. Will rapid job growth and bountiful salaries create problems as well as prosperity?
In the short term, the answer is mostly no. The job announcements have come in a rush, but the impact is a few years away. First, facilities need to be constructed and hiring completed. And the lofty tech salaries hardly mean a big inflationary shift in pay across the workforce. These are highly specialized positions in a period of extraordinary demand for tech workers, particularly those who are top artificial intelligence researchers
There is time to get ready, but it needs to be time well spent. Local governments have taken steps to address growing pressures on housing costs and transportation. But much more needs to be done on regional and statewide levels to adjust to the effects of a rising tech economy that has grown even stronger during the pandemic.
In the Triangle, Charlotte and other North Carolina cities, the tech boom is not creating new problems. It is aggravating existing ones. The need for more affordable housing has been growing for years. The Triangle and the state have long been behind on mass transit. There’s nothing new about public schools needing more state help to keep up with a growing population.
What is different now is the greater need for collective and coordinated planning involving government, industry and citizens groups. They need to channel the pressures of more jobs and more wealth in ways that benefit people of all incomes and protect the quality of life. Cities such as Austin, Texas, and San Jose, California, have enjoyed the benefits of tech booms but are also struggling to cope with sprawl, gentrification and sharply rising housing costs.
The News & Observer’s Aaron Sánchez-Guerra and Anna Johnson last week explored how the boom in tech jobs will challenge the greater Triangle region. In their report, the key to solving the problems of growth was offered by Sally Goettel, president of the board of directors of Dorcas Ministries, which helps people in western Wake County where the new Apple campus will be built.
“The trouble with gentrification and with people getting pushed out of the housing market did not start with the Apple announcement,” she said. “This may exacerbate the problem in some ways, but it is one we can address and have the opportunity to do so if we have the community will to address it.”
The days of economic development being a collection of isolated events — a new plant here, a new distribution center there — are passing. The state and national economies are increasingly interconnected by information and bio technology and so are the challenges of fast growth and income inequality they bring. But those challenges can be overcome if, as Goettel said, “we have the community will.”