For most North Carolina counties, public schools mean jobs


Public schools are many things to communities throughout our state. They are the center of community life for many small towns and rural areas. They are cultural hubs for many neighborhoods in our urban centers and suburban rings. They are the conduit for friendships in childhood. They ground our sense of place in remembrances in adulthood.

Quite simply, for many, they are the physical architecture of our collective experience.

And our public schools are a source of jobs. Good jobs. And, in many places, lots of jobs.

Not just teachers and administrators. Not even janitorial staff and grounds crew. But jobs in the larger community, in the private sector, which provides support services and capital improvements.

EdNC has been looking at the counties where public school systems are the largest employers. Using data from the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Labor and Economic Analysis Division, the interactive map above highlights counties where the public school system was either the first- or second-largest employer in the state as of the fourth quarter, 2014–the most recent data available at the time of this article.

As with any quarterly report, it is a snap shot of a moment in time. It does not reflect a steady trend, one way or the other. But the data do tell an interesting story.

In 2014, across our state’s 100 counties, in 66 counties the school system was the largest employer and in 21 counties the school system was the second-largest employer.

In Wilkes County the school system was only the third-largest employer, behind Tyson Farms and Lowes. And in Duplin County, the county schools were only the third largest employer as well, behind Smithfield Foods and Butterball.

In Wake County, however, the public school system was the largest employer, ahead of North Carolina State University, WakeMed, and SAS Institute, just to name of a few.

North Carolina’s Top Employers

But how does it compare, county to county? The chart below shows the state’s top-25 employers for the same period. Of the state’s top employers in the fourth quarter of 2014, two of the top-five and six of the top-25 are public school systems.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education employed more people than Wells Fargo and Bank of America.

The Cumberland County Board of Education employed more people than US Air.

And the Union County School System employed more people than IBM.

State's Largest Employers, 4th Quarter 2015Source: N.C. Department of Commerce’s Labor and Economic Analysis Division’s Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW), 4th Quarter 2014. Retrieved using the Demand Driven Data Delivery (D4) System website.

A Consistent Trend

Even though the data above is a snap shot, it is not an anomaly. Public schools are consistently many of the largest employers in the state, year in and year out. EdNC did a random scan of employment data from the second quarter of each year in a five-year period from 2010 to 2015. In that time period, public school systems in North Carolina were the top employers in at least half of the counties in the state each year. At the tail end of the Great Recession in 2010, public school systems were either the largest or second largest employer in 90 counties throughout the state.

Public School Systems as Top Employers_FINALSource: N.C. Department of Commerce’s Labor and Economic Analysis Division’s Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW), 2nd Quarter 2010-2015. Retrieved using the Demand Driven Data Delivery (D4) System website.

A Rural, Urban, and Suburban Phenomenon

The map below shows counties where the public school system was either the first- or second-largest employer as of the fourth quarter 2014. It then classifies those counties as either rural, urban, or regional city/suburban based on the most recent classification used by the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center.

The grey are our rural counties, many places of economic hardship and loss of jobs–places where you might expect a public school system to be the top employer. But the patches of pink are the state’s thriving metros, the places we frequently think of as our hubs of industry and innovation. The economic engines driving our state’s success. The purple counties are suburban counties or the home to smaller, regional cities. The places where many North Carolinians choose to live and raise families.

First- and Second-Largest Employers by Urban/Suburban/Rural Classification, 4th Quarter 2014First- and Second-Largest Employers by Urban/Suburban/Rural Classification

Source: N.C. Department of Commerce’s Labor and Economic Analysis Division’s Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW), 4th Quarter 2014. Retrieved using the Demand Driven Data Delivery (D4) System website. Classifications taken from the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center.

What Does It Mean For Local Economies?

The 2002 report, Public Schools and Economic Development: What the research shows, found that in addition to being “major local employers” and providing an educated workforce to attract and maintain businesses, schools are:

  • “… [M]ajor consumers of professional services, with expenditures for supplies ranging from instructional materials to items for repair or maintenance”
  • “… [H]elp draw retail establishments to nearby locations”
  • ” … [A]lso potential credit investors, and by placing their accounts in local banks they give banks more money to loan to local businesses and entrepreneurs”

The 2013 report on the Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools in Virginia, a smaller district that serves more than 10,000 students and with approximately 1,400 employees, found that:

  • “An average $1.00 of the school division’s Operating and Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) budgets retained in the region results in $1.63 of regional spending.”
  • “Each million dollars in the operating and CIP budgets supports around 13.4 local jobs.”
  • “Each graduating class saves society an average of $41.5 million in terms of reducing spending on crime, health care, and social services.”

2014 analysis of the economic impact of Maryland’s Anne Arundel County Public School System, the state’s fifth largest with more than 10,000 employees and 78,000 students, and an operating budget of more than $1 billion, found that:

  • “Every $1.00 in operational monies spent by AACPS and retained in the county results in total spending locally of $1.36.”
  • “Every AACPS job supports another 0.29 jobs in the local economy.”
  • “Every $1 in capital spending that is retained in the county results in total spending locally of $1.48.”
  • “For every $1 million in AACPS capital spending, 7.56 additional jobs are supported in the county.”
  • “Every $1 in capital spending that is spent and retained in the state of Maryland results in total spending locally of $1.78.”

A 2011 analysis of the Virginia Beach City Public School System found similar economic returns to the local community, and specifically noted the positive affect of high-performing public schools on local property values, which result in higher tax revenues for local governments. The report notes that:

  • “…[T]he improved VBCPS test scores between 2007 and 2010 have resulted in City of Virginia Beach residential property values that are between $2.8 billion and $9.5 billion higher compared to the levels without the improvement in academic performance.”
  • “The corresponding gain in property tax revenues to the City of Virginia Beach is between $28 million and $86 million.”

EdNC’s Alex Granados recently spoke with Don Phipps, superintendent of Beaufort County Schools, on what it means to be the county’s top employer in North Carolina.

As Phipps says,

“I think a lot of folks look at us in the community as being the school system, and they don’t see us as an employer….”

“Anytime you are dealing with the budget cuts to the level that we’ve had recently it touches personnel. When you either aren’t able to continue to hire individuals or you are not filling positions then it certainly has a negative impact on the economy because you have fewer people in our local economy that are wage earners that are able to contribute and put back into the economy.”

North Carolina, as our legislature considers policy choices — including, for example, additional cuts to the number of teaching assistants — in the state’s budget on issues regarding education, what matters to you? How do you weigh student achievement, jobs, and the other factors that play into the policy choices being made?

Editor’s note: In reviewing our data for this article, EdNC noticed entries for “Department of Defense” and “Defense Ex Army Navy & Air Force” as the top two employers for both Cumberland and Onslow Counties. In conversations with a representative at the Labor and Economic Analysis Division in the North Carolina Department of Commerce, it appears these are duplicate entries in each instance, i.e., they are the same entity in each county. If this is correct, it would change our analysis by making the Cumberland County Board of Education and the Onslow County Board of Education the second largest employers in both of their counties, thus increasing the number of counties with public school systems as the second largest employer from 21 to 23. Once the duplications have been confirmed, we will update our data accordingly.

Other resources:

Rebecca Tippett, Carolina Demography, NC in Focus: Top Employer by County, 2014 (Q2)

Dave DeWitt and Keith Weston, WUNC, Why Teacher Pay Matters Even If You Are Not a Teacher [Interactive Map]


About the author

Todd Brantley is the senior director of public affairs at The Rural Center. He formerly served as director of policy and research at EducationNC. He grew up in Randolph County where he attended Farmer Elementary School, Randleman Middle School, and Randleman High School. Todd attended Randolph Community College before graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1995.… Read full bio »