Has the NC economy recovered from COVID-19? A look using QCEW data.

This blog article compares the most recent Quarterly Census of Employment Wages (QCEW) release (the third quarter of 2021, henceforth 2021 Q3) and compares it to its pre-pandemic analog (the third quarter of 2019, henceforth 2019 Q3) to understand the impact of COVID-19 on North Carolina employment and wages at an industry sector level.

How has the economy changed in NC? Total industry employment reached 4,515,068 in 2021 Q3, a slight increase of 1% from its level in 2019. During the same period, even after adjusting for inflation1, average weekly wages increased by 8%.  During the same period, the U.S. saw a decrease in employment (-3%) while real wages grew by 8%.

North Carolina experienced employment growth across more than half of the industry sectors.  Transportation and Warehousing added the most jobs, nearly 30,000, while Finance and Insurance added more than 22,000 jobs.

NC Industry Sector Employment Growth, 2019 Q3 to 2021 Q3

Source: Chart generated by LEAD staff using data from Quarterly Census of Employment (QCEW),2019 Q3 and 2021 Q3

A more detailed look at a selection of these industries reveals an interesting nuance to North Carolina’s economic recovery. The table below shows that the struggle to return to pre-pandemic levels of employment occurred in tandem with growth in real wages for all the selected industries across the period: 

Industry Sector Employment
Q3 2021
% Change in
Q3 2019 – Q3 2021
Avg Weekly
Q3 2021
% Change in
Real Wage,
Q3 2019 – Q3 2021
Total, All Industries 4,515,068 1% $1,111 8%
Professional, Scientific, & Technical Services 293,359 10% $1,805 6%
Retail Trade 512,812 1% $681 13%
Health Care & Social Assistance 627,647 -1% $1,135 9%
Manufacturing 464,582 -3% $1,236 3%
Accommodation & Food Services 409,413 -9% $434 14%
Source: North Carolina Quarterly Census of Employment (QCEW), downloaded from D4

Looking at national trends for these industry sectors in the table below shows that North Carolina is recovering faster than the U.S. in employment, but lags in real wage growth for Professional, Scientific, & Technical Services and Manufacturing.

Industry Sector % Change, NC
Q3 2019 – Q3 2021
% Change, US
Q3 2019 – Q3 2021
% Change, NC
Real Wage
Q3 2019 – Q3 2021
% Change, US
Real Wage
Q3 2019 – Q3 2021
Total, All Industries 1% -3% 8% 8%
Professional, Scientific, & Technical Services 10% 4% 6% 8%
Retail Trade 1% -1% 13% 13%
Health Care & Social Assistance -1% -2% 9% 7%
Manufacturing -3% -4% 3% 5%
Accommodation & Food Services -9% -10% 14% 11%
Source: North Carolina QCEW data obtained from D4, national QCEW data obtained from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

This analysis tells us that North Carolina has experienced a rapid recovery from the COVID 19 pandemic, but it is uneven and incomplete. Several key sectors are short of their pre pandemic employment levels. NC’s real wages are up in all industry sectors but are lagging national increases in Manufacturing and Professional, Scientific and Technical Services. As additional datasets become available, we will better understand the changes to our economy.


Why did we choose to highlight these five industries? They provide more than half of all jobs in NC – Health Care & Social Assistance (13.9%), Retail Trade (11.4%), Manufacturing (10.3%), Accommodations & Food Services (9.1%), Professional, Scientific and Technical Services (6.5%). Professional, Scientific and Technical Services added the most employment of any NC industry between 1990 and 2020, increasing 218%.


1Adjustment performed using the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ Personal Consumption Expenditures Index.

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