By on 12.13.19 in NC in Focus

The state is the largest overall employer in North Carolina with over 82,000 public employees as of November 2019; over a quarter (27%) of them work for the University of North Carolina system alone.  Meanwhile, Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in North Carolina, along with twenty-one other states. (Note: The map in the previous link erroneously classifies the UNC System as a private employer.)

What does the employment landscape look like at the county level? Have things changed since we last reported in 2015? Data is from 2019 Q2.

Public School System

In 55 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, the largest employer was a public school district. (In some counties, this is called a school board of education but they mean the same thing.) Some large school districts like Wake County Public Schools employed well over a thousand individuals, while others (Hyde County Board of Education, Graham County Schools) employed between 100-249 individuals.

55 counties where public schools are the top employer, 2019



Manufacturing remains a sizable and diverse industry in North Carolina. Manufacturers were the largest employer in twelve counties in 2019 (Q2) – up from 11 in 2014.

Half of these were food manufacturers – Bertie (Perdue), Bladen (Smithfield), Duplin (Butterball), Lenoir (Sanderson Farms), Sampson (Smithfield), and Wilkes (Tyson). Other industries included furniture (Davie County), paper (Washington), textiles (Yadkin), and healthcare equipment (Ashe, Nash).

12 counties where manufacturers are the top employer, 2019


Hospitals / Medical Establishments

Twelve NC counties had a medical establishment as their largest employer. The majority of these were hospitals, while some were associated medical service providers, such as Labcorp in Alamance County.

12 counties where medical establishments are the top employer, 2019

Public Administration

Public administrations – such as the Department of Public Safety – employed the most residents in seven NC counties. Three of these employed over 1,000 residents: the two State Departments of Health and Human Services (Burke, Granville) and the City of Rocky Mount municipal government in Edgecombe County.

7 counties where public administrations are the top employer


The UNC System is a leading employer statewide. Among North Carolina’s counties, there are four where a university employed the most residents: Durham (Duke), Jackson (Western Carolina), Orange (UNC-Chapel Hill), and Watauga (Appalachian State).

Map of NC: 4 counties where universities are the top employer, 2019. Jackson, Watauga, Orange, Durham

Department of Defense

The military is a major employer in North Carolina, particularly in the three counties where the Department of Defense maintains operations: Craven (Cherry Point), Cumberland (Fort Bragg), and Onslow (Camp Lejeune).

3 counties where the dept. of defense is the top employer, 2019


Other Private Businesses

Seven counties in North Carolina were largely employed by other types of private businesses, ranging from the home improvement store Lowe’s in Iredell and Northampton counties to the bank BB&T in Wilson County.

7 counties where Other industry was the top employer

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