Up the hill from God's Acre, biotechnology could be Jim Crawford's salvation. In a laboratory a few blocks from Old Salem's cemetery, where Moravians sleep--some since the 1700s--beneath rows of marble slabs, he works in the sterile air of biological safety cabinets, extracting cells from the amniotic fluid of pregnant women. The nonembryonic stem cells can morph into different types of body tissue.
"Some of these, we want to remain like stem cells," Crawford says from inside his white coat and safety glasses. "But others, we want to change into muscle and nerve." This is not science fiction. This is the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in downtown Winston-Salem. They grow human organs here.
At 57, Crawford is cultivating something else--another career. Since the 1980s, layoffs have cost him jobs in textiles, electronics and the furniture industry. After the 2005 shutdown of PMI Industries Inc., which made furniture hardware and other products in Welcome, just south of the Twin City, he earned a two-year biotechnology degree from Forsyth Technical Community College. That helped him land a job here. "In the future, you're going to have to be willing to retrain and relocate to survive," he says. But such job security can come at a cost. "I'm making about half of what I was when I left PMI, and that was in the $60,000s."
Crawford's career path has followed changes in an economy once dependent on manufacturing textiles, furniture and tobacco products and now leaning more heavily on life sciences, finance and other emerging sectors. "We're the poster child for a region in transition," says Don Kirkman, CEO of the Greensboro-based Piedmont Triad Partnership. The 12 counties that make up the economic-development organization had a net loss of nearly 30,000 insured-employment jobs from 2000 to 2006. Vanished--or shadows of their former selves--are the headquarters and plants that once made the region the center of the state's manufacturing might. Statewide, net job creation has varied, with counties that make up the Research Triangle Partnership gaining sharply but some other regions stagnant or losing ground. Figures show state-insured employment in the North Carolina portion of the Charlotte Regional Partnership increased 2% in the period.
The economic shifts have instilled fear and confusion in workers. North Carolina has shed 300,000 old-line manufacturing jobs over the last three decades. Per capita personal income, after peaking in 1997 at 93% of the U.S. figure, has slipped eight of the last nine years, the first sustained decline since the Great Depression. In 2006, it stood at 88%--about where it did in 1987. Household incomes, adjusted for inflation, fell 8% between 2000 and 2005, N.C. State University economist Michael Walden notes. But even those figures are open to interpretation. "We're a fast-growing state, and young people starting in their careers make less," says Mark Vitner, regional and national economist at Wachovia Corp. in Charlotte. North Carolina also has the nation's second-highest rate of legal and illegal immigration. The newcomers, primarily from Latin America, are young and have a birth rate double that of non-Hispanics. Babies, Vitner points out, earn nothing.
To get a picture of what's happening, focus on the Triad. Probe its technology enclaves, gritty mill towns and back roads, and you'll find a landscape dotted with prosperity but also littered with the dead-end, dead-wrong assumptions of the past: Automation would save textiles; tobacco would reign forever; foreign furniture could never compete with North Carolina's. It's a glimpse into the future, too, with great promise but many potential pitfalls. Jim Crawford is a case study.
Across the street from where he works in Piedmont Triad Research Park, along silent hallways in aseptic glass cubicles lined with beakers and test tubes, Targacept Inc. researchers and technicians target the brain's nicotinic receptors in a search for drugs to treat Alzheimer's and other diseases. In the next building, two new companies delve into nanotechnology. Working within billionths of a meter--100,000th the width of a human hair, explains physicist Daryl Boudreaux, the president of both--PlexiLight Inc. searches for commercially viable ways to generate light while FiberCell Inc. seeks technology to capture electricity from the sun. Then drive 30 minutes to the south side of the city where you'll find more than 40 technicians at Tengion Inc., which licenses technology from Crawford's employer, cultivating neo-bladders for patients in medical trials. Commercial production could begin within three years.
In the Triad, the potential for research, logistics and advanced-manufacturing jobs seems boundless. Texas-based computer maker Dell, which employs 1,100 in Winston-Salem, is just settling in. Tennessee-based air courier FedEx will employ 500 in Greensboro when its sorting hub opens in 2009. Honda Aircraft, part of the Japanese car maker, plans to spend $100 million and employ 300 at the headquarters of its budding aviation business in Greensboro. It also plans to open a $28 million, 70-employee plant to make jet engines in Burlington. In that former mill town, Laboratory Corporation of America Holdings performs medical tests. About 3,000 work in some 40 buildings downtown and elsewhere in Alamance County.
Manufacturing is still key. "It has shrunk as a percentage of the work force, but it hasn't shrunk in importance to the economy," says Mac Williams, president of the Alamance County Area Chamber of Commerce. About 3,600 work for Reynolds American Inc. in North Carolina, most in and around Winston-Salem. But that number is down from about 14,000 in the 1980s. Many of the losses were what a 2007 study by the N.C. Commission on Workforce Development calls "middle jobs"--the ones that let a worker with minimal education support a family.
While other nations have taken many jobs, so has automation, weapon of choice against cheap foreign labor. Go 25 miles west of Winston-Salem to the foothills town of Yadkinville, where Greensboro-based Unifi Inc.'s million-square-foot, six-story polyester-fiber plant is an example. On vast floors, each as big as a typical Wal-Mart, giant machines whine while robotic AGVs--automated guided vehicles--doff millions of cones of yarn a year. Human hands never touch the material.
At work here and elsewhere, Walden says, is a seismic upheaval of the state's economic bedrock. "It's...