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Elite workforce, booming economy lead North Carolina to repeat as America’s Top State for Business


At a time when companies are clamoring for workers while trying to navigate a treacherous economy, no state is meeting their needs more effectively than North Carolina. The Tar Heel State is America’s Top State for Business in CNBC’s annual competitiveness study.

It is the second consecutive year at the top for North Carolina — a rare feat in the CNBC study, which launched in 2007. Business and the economy in the state have been on a tear since the pandemic, and the state has scarcely looked back.

In 2023 alone, the state has amassed a trophy case full of economic development wins, ranging from a $130 million investment by Bosch to expand its power tool manufacturing facility in Lincolnton, to a $458 million biomanufacturing facility to be built in Greensboro by cellular therapeutics company ProKidney, and even a $58 million turkey production facility in Goldsboro by poultry breeder Select Genetics.

The projects come on top of major wins last year, including Vietnamese electric vehicle manufacturer VinFast announcing it will build its first North American plant in the state, and Durham-based semiconductor materials manufacturer Wolfspeed expanding its operations there.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper walks to the podium to address the crowd during President Joe Biden’s visit to Wolfspeed, a semiconductor manufacturer, in Durham, North Carolina, March 28, 2023.
Melissa Sue Gerrits | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Last month, Apple2021, with 700,000 square feet of office space in its initial phase. It is Apple’s first hub on the East Coast.

A common thread through all the projects is people.

“Our talented, educated workers are the foundation of our economic success,” said Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, in his state of the state address in March.

The numbers bear that out. North Carolina ranks first in the all-important Workforce category of CNBC’s study. In particular, the state is a leader in attracting and retaining talent across a range of industries, said Josh Wright, an executive vice president with labor market analytics firm Lightcast, which provided some of the data for the CNBC study.

“Charlotte is seeing a lot of growth in the financial sector,” he said. “But it’s not just a one-trick pony. You’ve got the Raleigh-Durham area. You’ve got massive, major, internationally well-known universities driving growth.”

The state is also a leader in career education.

“You have one of the most competitive community college systems in America as well in North Carolina, that is attuned to the needs of their industry,” Wright said.

In addition, more than 89% of participants in state worker training programs were employed within six months, according to U.S. Labor Department data. That is the third-best record in the country, after Alaska and Massachusetts.

Strong workers fuel GDP, solid state finances

North Carolina’s strong workforce helped feed its performance in other categories. The state finishes No. 3 in Economy. Its $560 billion gross domestic product grew by a healthy 3.2% last year, though growth has leveled off at the beginning of 2023, according to the Commerce Department. State finances are solid; its debt rating is top-notch, according to Moody’s. And North Carolina’s housing market appears to be handling the influx of new residents with minimal stress.

Home prices surged by more than 13% last year, according to the Federal Housing Financing Agency, putting a dent in affordability. But home builders are picking up the slack, with housing starts among the highest in the nation, according to the Census Bureau. However, an uptick in foreclosures, according to figures from ATTOM Data Solutions, bears watching.

North Carolina also finishes strong in Technology & Innovation and Access to Capital, both at No. 6.

Political tensions pressure education, quality of life

The state had a strong showing in education, at No. 7, but in May, Cooper declared a state of emergency in the state’s public education system. It is a sign that the political detente that has helped the state achieve its business success may have come to an end.

“It’s clear that the Republican legislature is aiming to choke the life out of public education,” Cooper said on May 24. “I’m declaring this a state of emergency because you need to know what’s happening.”

The declaration, which has no legal effect, came after Republicans introduced a plan to expand vouchers and charter schools, which the governor said will divert critical funding from public education.

A key sponsor of the legislation is state Rep. Tricia Cotham, who switched from Democrat to Republican in April, giving the GOP a supermajority in the General Assembly.

“We have to evolve, and I believe that the state is changing,” Cotham said in unveiling the school choice legislation. “One size fits all in education is wrong for children.”

Already, the newly empowered legislature has passed a 12-week abortion ban over the governor’s veto. The law took effect on July 1. Because this year’s CNBC rankings consider reproductive rights as a metric in Life, Health & Inclusion, the ban hurts the state’s already poor ranking in the category. It finishes No. 38 in the category, down from No. 28 in 2022.

Abortion rights demonstrators gather to protest in Raleigh, North Carolina, after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case, June 24, 2022.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

In addition to the abortion ban, North Carolina is one of just five states in which statewide protections against discrimination apply only to people with disabilities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Gov. Cooper says North Carolina’s abortion restrictions are not as severe as states to the South and West of it, but he said states where culture wars are raging, and in particular Southeastern states that have made economic gains, will see long-term problems because they are limiting their workforce.

“We are not here to fight Mickey Mouse. We are here to fight for jobs,” Cooper said in an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Tuesday morning.

“You still see people going to Florida and Texas, but you begin to see deterioration over time. Site selectors will tell you these issues matter when it comes time for businesses to make tough decisions,” he said.

It is not only about attracting the largest corporations to expand into a state, according to Cooper, but about the development of new businesses and innovative businesses that states wants to attract. “That’s why it is critical to battle,” he said.

Violent crime is also on the rise, according to FBI statistics. And the state ranks poorly for health care, with low public health funding and a high number of people without health insurance, according to the United Health Foundation.

Scoring all 50 states

The CNBC study measures all 50 states across 10 categories of competitiveness, for a total of 2,500 possible points. North Carolina scores 1,628 points to capture this year’s crown.

Our methodology assigns a weight to each category based on how frequently states cite it as a selling point. The idea is to measure the states based on the criteria they use to pitch themselves to business.

Here are this year’s categories and point totals:

Workforce: 400 points (16%)Infrastructure: 390 points (15.6%)Economy: 360 points (14.4%)Life, Health & Inclusion: 350 points (14%)Cost of Doing Business: 290 points (11.6%)Technology & Innovation: 270 points (10.8%)Business Friendliness: 215 points (8.6%)Education: 125 points (5%)Access to Capital: 50 points (2%)Cost of Living: 50 points (2%)

The contenders

This year’s runner-up is Virginia. The Old Dominion finished No. 1 for Education, with strong support for K-12 and post-secondary schools. But high costs — including high wages — hurt the state.

Third-ranked Tennessee offers superb Infrastructure (No. 3). But raging culture wars landed the state at No. 43 for Life, Health & Inclusion.

Georgia, in fourth place, has the nation’s best Infrastructure, including the world’s busiest airport. But with a tough legal climate, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform, the state finishes No. 35 for Business Friendliness.

Fifth-place Minnesota is a leader in Life, Health & Inclusion (No. 4). But high taxes and low incentives drop the state to No. 39 for Cost of Doing Business.

The Most Improved State for 2023 is New Jersey, which finishes No. 19 overall. That is a 23-place jump from last year’s No. 42 finish.

Powering the Garden State’s surge is its Economy ranking, which rose to No. 19 this year from dead last in 2022, thanks to marked improvements in its housing and job markets. State finances are still poor, however. The state’s pension systems are poorly funded, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts, and its debt rating is low, according to Moody’s, though it has recently received multiple upgrades.

The bottom states

CNBC ranks all 50 states, so if there are Top States, there must also be Bottom States.

State No. 46 is West Virginia, with America’s least educated Workforce. In 47th place is Hawaii, the most expensive state in which to live and do business. No. 48 is Mississippi, which ranks at the bottom for Business Friendliness. State No. 49 is Louisiana, which does poorly for Workforce, Infrastructure, and Life, Health & Inclusion.

The Bottom State for 2023 is Alaska, with America’s worst-performing economy. State GDP dropped by 2.4% last year, with oil production at its lowest level since the 1970s. The state is also the third-most expensive state in which to do business, after Hawaii and Massachusetts.

And Alaska does poorly for Infrastructure, Education and Access to Capital, finishing No. 49 in each category.

A new low for Texas

The 2023 rankings mark the first time ever that Texas has finished outside the Top Five. The Lone Star State just misses, at No. 6 this year.

Texas did not help itself by passing a barrage of laws targeting the LGBTQ+ community and curtailing voting rights. But its last-place finish for Life, Health & Inclusion also reflects a high violent crime rate and poor health care, with the nation’s largest percentage of uninsured people.

Texas also does poorly for Education (No. 35). And the state’s growing issues with its power grid drop it to No. 24 for Infrastructure, compared with No. 14 last year.

Texas remains a business powerhouse, however. It tied California for the first time at No. 1 in Access to Capital. Its Economy finishes second behind Florida. And its Workforce is second only to Top State North Carolina, as people flock to Texas regardless of whether its policies are welcoming to all.

CNBC welcomes your feedback on our 2023 study. Share your thoughts on social media using the hashtag #TopStates.

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