City and regional officials are touting strong job growth numbers for metropolitan Winston-Salem as evidence for optimism about local economic prospects.

The Winston-Salem area posted higher employment growth over the summer than most of the other large metropolitan areas in North Carolina, and beat the growth rates in other cities of similar size nationwide, according to figures from the national Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Metropolitan Winston-Salem had a 3.1% growth in non-farm employment between August of 2018 and August of 2019. That's a growth rate higher than Charlotte (2.3%), Raleigh (1.7%), or even Greenville, S.C. (1.7%), one of the cities that local leaders use in their comparison charts.

"It is impossible to know what future growth will be, but Winston-Salem has been making investments to reposition the economy over the past few years, and it is reasonable to expect and hope that this is the early sign that the future is bright," said Ted Abernathy, an economic development consultant.

Abernathy was the key speaker in a State of the Region presentation held recently by the Piedmont Triad Partnership, a group that promotes regional growth. Abernathy is the managing partner of Economic Leadership LLC, a consulting firm.

Abernathy said white collar jobs such as business and professional services and health and education services were big drivers of the strong 12-month growth numbers. Another strong area of growth was in leisure and hospitality jobs, Abernathy said.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, professional and business service jobs were up 5.7% here over the 12-month period, while education and health jobs increased 4.2%. Leisure and hospitality jobs were up 5.8% during the period.

While construction jobs were a smaller part of the overall local job mix, those jobs were up 5.5% for the 12-month period.

Preliminary job numbers for September, while subject to adjustment as more data comes in, do suggest that the job growth trend was continuing into the fall. Non-farm employment was up 3.3% in preliminary numbers, led by a whopping 9.5% increase in leisure and hospitality jobs over the previous September.

"The one caveat is that we all need the national economy to avoid a recession anytime soon," Abernathy said.

Citing statistics from the N.C. Department of Commerce, Abernathy said Forsyth County led the other counties of the Triad in employment growth in absolute numbers for the year ending in August 2019.

Those statistics showed Forsyth County adding almost 7,100 jobs during a period when Guilford County added only 4,800 jobs and Davidson County almost 3,000 jobs.

Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said the job numbers show the city's effort to improve the local economy is working. Joines and city officials issued a news release based on the Economic Leadership presentation that cited a two-year growth rate for metro Winston-Salem of 3.9% from August 2017 to August 2019.

In North Carolina as a whole, non-farm job growth was up 2.3% from September 2018 to September 2019.

Meanwhile, job creation in metro Winston-Salem hasn't always been followed by a drop in the unemployment rate. In August, the unemployment rate was 4.2%, up from 3.9% the previous August.

"Employment can go up, but if additional people join the labor force the unemployment rate can also rise," Abernathy said.

Also, people who work in metro Winston-Salem can live literally anywhere, so an increase in the number of jobs doesn't necessarily translate into a lower jobless rate.

That said, the preliminary September jobless rate for the metro Winston-Salem area stood at 3.3%, the same as for the same month in 2018.

The Economic Leadership presentation to the Piedmont Triad Partnership said the Triad has about 9.3% of the state's jobs in the technology sector, but that growth in that sector has been lagging compared to the state as a whole. 

While technology jobs increased by 1% in the Triad from 2012 to 2017, during the same period, the number of technology jobs in the state has increased 17%.

The region also has work to do in attracting talent, according to Abernathy. When Economic Leadership put together an index of places based on their ability to attract brainy talent, the Triad was nowhere on the list: Raleigh was in third place, Charlotte was in fifth, and Durham was in 15th place.

Still, Abernathy said the Triad metro areas have some advantages in their favor, with lower housing and construction costs, and less traffic congestion.

On the other hand, the region lags behind its other metro competitors in educational attainment, income levels and ability to attract millennials.

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wyoung@wsjournal.com

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@wyoungWSJ

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