North Carolina has a long history of economic success, with its economy based primarily on tobacco cultivation in the 1700s and 1800s and the manufacture of tobacco products and textiles in the early 20th century. As the economy shifted from relying on “muscle strength” to using “mental strength”, higher education expanded throughout the state. North Carolina had already developed a strong public university system to complement its high-profile private universities and colleges, allowing it to be among the states with the lowest tuition and rates for public universities. The 1990s and 2000s saw two major trade agreements, NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the WTO (World Trade Organization), which put an end to globalization.
This had a major impact on North Carolina's economy, as the textile industry was once one of its dominant economic sectors for many decades. In the 1970s, “Three major tobacco, textile and furniture industries dominated the economy, accounting for almost a quarter of all economic output.” In order to stay competitive in today's global economy, North Carolina has implemented initiatives such as the Entrepreneurial Startup Hub. This joint effort between Carolina's Kickstart Venture Services and Duke University's New Ventures Program provides startups with access to a business ecosystem, a joint talent network, and an established database of service providers. This plays a critical role in attracting new businesses, creating more jobs, and expanding North Carolina's tax base.
The agricultural industry is also central to North Carolina's reputation as an economic leader in the Southeast. For the value of agricultural products sold, it is one of the most important industries in the state. Additionally, North Carolina's more than 336,300 alumni live across the country and around the world, but some have stayed close to home and their presence here has enriched the Carolina community. As early as the 1950s, North Carolina's forward-thinking state leaders recognized that economic change was on the way.
The wealth of talent that comes from the UNC System keeps North Carolina companies competitive in the global economy. The state has consistently been on the positive side of relocations, with many more businesses and people moving to it than leaving it. This has helped keep its unemployment rate low, ranking sixth in change throughout January 2021.