In order to understand the state of low-wage work in North Carolina, it is vital to examine the industries that are creating and maintaining these low-paying jobs. The first step is identifying low-wage industries to show the basic low-wage landscape: the industries are mostly service providing, but range from restaurants to leisure to health care. Next, we explore trends in employment numbers and wages for the past 20 years. The wage trends are helpful in showing which industries have changed from non-low-wage to low-wage, and to see the near-universal trend of falling or stagnant wages.  The employment numbers show us that growth has been most rapid in some of the lowest-paying industries, which points to an increasing low-wage workforce in the future. Finally, we compare low-wage industries with non-low-wage industries to see a more complete picture of the NC economy. This shows disparate trends in employment growth, with low-wage industries growing while non-low-wage industries shrink and wages stagnate for both. For more detailed information on what is driving growth and low wages in selected low-wage industries, see the Industry Snapshots page.

Low-Wage Industries in North Carolina 

Using the low-wage cutoff of $11.34 per hour and a minimum employment level of 25,000 workers, our team identified these 13 low-wage NC industries to analyze. Along with the industries you might expect to see in a list of low-wage industries, such as Restaurants & Other Eating Places and Gas Stations, there are also some unexpected industries on the list, such as Home Health Care, Child Day Care Services, and Continuing Care and Elder Care.

Highest-Wage Industries in North Carolina

For comparison, North Carolina industries with the highest average hourly wages have average hourly wages ranging from $35.53 to $44.28. These industries include Management of Companies and Enterprises; Computer Systems Design and Related Services; Wholesale Electronic Markets and Agents and Brokers; Offices of Physicians; and Depository Credit Intermediation.

Average Hourly Wage (in 2012 dollars) in Low-Wage Industries in NC, 1992-2012

The average real wages (which reflect actual buying power and account for inflation) for most of our identified low-wage industries have remained flat or declined since the 2008 recession. The Continuing Care & Assisted Living industry, for example, peaked in real wages in 2002, still falling short of the low-wage cutoff line shown on the chart, and has been declining since. Individual and Family Services became a low-wage industry in 2012, but also shows a rapid decline in real wages through the 2000s.

The only two industries that show an overall upward trend in the past decade are Other General Merchandise Stores and Home Health Care Services, though Home Health Care is still down from its 1992 real wages, which were well above the low-wage cutoff. Finally, note the consistently low wages in the Restaurants and Other Eating Places industry, and remember the extremely high and growing size of that industry.

Average Annual Employment in Low-Wage Industries in NC, 1992-2012

These two charts depict the employment in each of the identified low wage industries over the past 20 years. In the top graph, note that Restaurants & Other Eating Places is far and away the largest and fastest-growing industry. Recall that this industry also had the lowest average hourly wage rate.

The bottom graph shows the same information with Restaurants removed so that the other industries can be seen more clearly. Note that all of the low-wage industries are either growing in employment or staying flat, even in the post-recession years. 

Low Wage Industries: Change in Wages, Change in Employment, and North Carolina Workforce

Explore the interplay of several trends in NC low-wage industries. Each circle represents an industry. The position of each circle on the chart shows the change in wages and employment from 1992-2012. The horizontal axis shows percent change in employment: The further to the right a circle is, the larger employment growth has been. Home Health Care Services and Individual and Family Services show the most growth, each more than tripling in workforce size. The vertical axis shows the percent change in real wages. If a circle is above the center horizontal line, there has been positive wage growth. Below the line signifies declining real wages. The size of the circle represents the current size of the North Carolina workforce in each industry. 

Comparison of Low Wage and Non-Low Wage Industries: Employment and Wage Changes

Low-wage industries (shown in yellow) and non-low-wage industries (in blue) in North Carolina show very different growth trends in employment and wages. Low-wage industries are growing, some very rapidly.

The non-low-wage industries shown here are NC “legacy industries,” including textiles, furniture manufacturing, and animal slaughtering. Most are now employing workforces below their 1992 levels, and have declining employment trends. The legacy industry with the best wage growth, Residential Building & Construction, fell in both wages and employment in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. The other non-low-wage industries shown are still hovering around 1992 real wage levels, or falling slightly, indicating that though the average worker in those industries is not low-wage, they aren’t seeing wage growth.