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Region adding jobs but at slower pace

Despite an economic downturn that has cut employment across the country, the Charlotte region is still adding jobs.

The growth rate has slowed, however, and some industries could see recent job gains start to erode if area consumers – rocked by rising gas prices and other costs – spend less in the months ahead, one economist said.

In the past five years, Charlotte has seen higher employment in several sectors. The biggest increases – in jobs added and growth rate – came in professional and technical services, hotels and restaurants, and education and health care.

Elizabeth Waller moved to Charlotte from Florence, S.C., this year and joined Presbyterian Hospital Huntersville in April. As a patient safety mentor – a new position at Presbyterian – Waller, 28, evaluates hospital procedures and policies to make them safer for patients.

A registered nurse, Waller said she went into health care to make a difference in people's lives, but also knew it was a growing industry.

“You have multiple opportunities for employment,” she said.

The U.S. had about 137.7 million nonfarm employees in April, only 0.3 percent more than in April 2007 after increases of at least 1 percent in each of the previous three years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The nation's economy has lost jobs every month this year. Employment numbers for May will be released this morning, and Bloomberg News reported this week that a survey of 78 economists suggested that the country lost 60,000 jobs that month.

Amid those losses, the Charlotte region has added jobs each month this year, and the April employment figure – about 873,500 – was 2 percent higher than the same month last year, federal statistics show. That was down from more than 4 percent in the two previous years but ahead of the national pace.

Previous downturns hit North Carolina hard because of the high number of manufacturing jobs, said Michael Walden, an economics professor at N.C. State University.

“This one may be an exception,” Walden said. “We don't have the number of jobs there to lose anymore.”

Instead, Charlotte has seen an increase in finance, technology and other white-collar jobs, which – along with the region's robust population growth – has spurred more retail, restaurant and other hospitality jobs.

Some threats remain

Charlotte's boom in restaurant and retail jobs is a stark contrast to the national picture. While the U.S. lost more than 120,000 retail jobs from April 2007 to the same month this year, the Charlotte region added almost 4,000, according to federal data.

But industries that depend on disposable household income could suffer if the downturn stretches for several months, causing families to cut spending, Walden said. Charlotte also is vulnerable to ongoing woes in the financial and housing industries, he said, where employment growth already has slowed

For now, most Charlotte companies aren't complaining, said Kenny Colbert, president of The Employers Association, a Charlotte human resources consulting firm that works with 850 companies ranging in size and industry.

“I dare say that about 700 of them are doing relatively well,” Colbert said. “People are saying business is really good. We did not hear that in 2001, 2002 and 2003.”

Most area companies are neither hiring nor firing large numbers of employees, Colbert said. That includes manufacturers, most of which already cut employment earlier this decade as jobs moved to other countries.

“These companies got absolutely pounded,” Colbert said. “There is just no fat there.”

A boost from population

Unlike some cities, Charlotte-area employment has benefitted from strong population growth.

Along with leisure and hospitality, education and health services saw nearly a 25 percent increase in employment – a net gain of almost 16,000 jobs – over the past five years, federal statistics show.

Waller, the new Presbyterian Hospital employee, said she moved to Charlotte because her husband works in banking. She soon found multiple job opportunities at area medical facilities.

Others have made health care a second career. Lynn Heintzelman spent more than two decades at Bank of America before leaving as a vice president in 2002. After taking two years off, Heintzelman, now 50, enrolled in nursing school at the Carolinas College of Health Sciences, taking courses at the same time as her oldest daughter.

“I was always drawn to medicine but never did anything with it,” she said.

Soon after graduating in late 2006, Heintzelman started work at Carolinas Medical Center, where she helps care for cancer patients. After going through multiple bank mergers, Heintzelman said “there is definitely a little more job security” in her current field.

Also at Carolinas Medical Center, Danny Graves of Mount Holly has been an operating room nurse for three years. Before that, he worked for US Airways for 21 years and left when the airline industry struggled after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

After reading a newspaper story about a lack of male nurses, Graves became a registered nurse in 2005.

“I heard if you got your license, you'd be pretty much assured of a job the rest of your life,” he said.