- Always a contender in CNBC's annual state competitiveness rankings, North Carolina finishes on top for the first time.
- Political leaders in the Tar Heel State keep managing to put partisanship aside to build the nation's strongest economy.
- Other top finishers are Washington, Virginia, Colorado and Texas. This year's Bottom State for Business is Mississippi.
The Tar Heel State has always been a contender in CNBC's annual competitiveness rankings, rarely finishing outside the top 10 since the study began in 2007. The state finished a close second last year. But 2022 is the first year it has been able to climb to the top.
What made the difference this year? For one thing, state leaders keep managing to put aside their very deep political divisions to boost business and the economy.
When Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed a deal in March with Vietnamese electric vehicle manufacturer VinFast to build a $2 billion factory in the state, State Senate President Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, both Republicans, were close at hand. The three had worked together, across party lines, to craft a $1.2 billion incentive package sealing the deal.
"VinFast's commitment to North Carolina solidifies our position as a global leader for fostering innovation and supporting businesses," Berger said that day.
It was not the first time the trio had worked together to craft a transformative deal. Last year, Apple announced it would build its first East Coast hub in the state's Research Triangle region in exchange for as much as $846 million in incentives.
"This is what happens when we work together. This is what happens when people with different viewpoints, different thought processes, come together," Moore said at the event announcing that deal in April 2021.
"We had a tough election in 2020," Cooper said that day. "They tried to get rid of me, I tried to get rid of them. We ended up the same way we were. And I think we looked at each other and said, 'This is what the people of North Carolina have voted for. We've got to work together to get positive outcomes for our state.'"
Sure enough, last fall, Cooper and the General Assembly finally came together to pass a two-year state budget — the first comprehensive spending plan since Cooper took office in 2017. This month, Democrats and Republicans came together again on adjustments for the budget's second year, which the governor signed into law on Monday. And the two sides announced that they are close to a deal on expanding Medicaid, a bone of contention for as long as Cooper has been in office.
"Divided government is working in North Carolina," wrote Alexander H. Jones in the blog Politics North Carolina in April, citing the incentive and budget deals as evidence. "Cooper and the Republicans have worked together hand-in-glove."
"We disagree about plenty, and my vetoes have been able to stop a lot of bad legislation that has come forward," Governor Cooper said in an interview on CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Wednesday morning. "But high-paying jobs for our people is something we have to agree upon."
"I've had both Republican and Democratic leaders of both the House and the Senate on each side of me as we make a presentation to the company that this is where you need to be, you're gonna get predictability, reliability, consistency," Cooper said. "Businesses look for that and they also look at what happens after the deal is done. Does state government, local government continue to work with them and try to help them succeed. Some of our best recruiters are CEOs who are already here."
Indeed, North Carolina's solid finances are the cornerstone of the nation's top Economy as measured by the CNBC study. The state's credit rating is pristine; its fiscal balance is sound. Economic growth, at 6.7% last year, and job growth at 3.6% were among the strongest in the nation, according to government statistics.
But that is just the beginning of North Carolina's strength.
The state ranks No. 2, behind only California, for Access to Capital. Having the nation's second- and sixth-largest banks based in Charlotte (Bank of America and Truist Financial, respectively) provides a home field advantage of sorts. But North Carolina companies also attracted some $3.5 billion in venture capital investments last year, the sixth highest in the country, according to the National Venture Capital Association. And state grant and loan programs for business have gotten new life under the state's bipartisan truce.
In Technology and Innovation, the home of the famed Research Triangle Park finishes at No. 5. North Carolina institutions are among the leading recipients of National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health research funding, and the state ranks high for cryptocurrency mining, a new factor in this year's rankings.
And North Carolina ranks No. 12 for Workforce. That is a key attribute for NASCAR driver and NBC Sports analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is also a small business owner employing 140 people at Mooresville-based JR Motorsports.
"It's easy for us to get some of the most talented people to work for our business," he said. "We can't win without great people. North Carolina gives us that opportunity."
"Talking to CEO after CEO, workforce is the driving force for them right now," Cooper told CNBC. "They see North Carolina as place where they can rely on our community colleges, our greatest array of public and private universities in the country to make sure they have the workforce they need."
Where North Carolina falls short
No state is perfect, however. North Carolina ranks No. 28 for Life, Health and Inclusion.
The state long ago retreated from its controversial "bathroom bill" known as HB2 after intense criticism from business. In 2017, legislators agreed to repeal the provisions in the law requiring people to use bathrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate. The rest of the law expired in 2020.
But North Carolina remains one of just five states with no law protecting nondisabled residents from discrimination, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In his CNBC interview, Cooper said the state does need statewide protections. "I am pushing for that," he said, but he conceded it is one of his disagreements with political opponents. He noted executive orders to make sure the state is protecting LGBTQ+ rights, including a ban on any contracts with organizations that engage in conversion therapy. "We're holding them at bay on cultural wars," he said. "We are sending the right signals."
Cooper also pointed to his cabinet as the most diverse in the history of the state, North Carolina being No. 1 among states in the percentage of women in the tech work force, and its position as the state with the most four-year historically Black colleges and universities, one of which graduates more black engineers than any state in country (North Carolina A&T).
The state also lags in two other important Life, Health and Inclusion metrics: per capita public health spending and hospital resources. Both are among the many areas where North Carolina's explosive growth is straining resources.
On abortion, which the governor said led a film production to move this past week from Arkansas to North Carolina, Cooper said it would remain legal "as long as I am governor." He has vetoed abortion bills, but added that he will need support in the legislature and votes in the upcoming elections to sustain those vetoes. "I will not back down on women's rights. … businesses know they need to have their employees protected."
Workers weigh heavily in rankings
The CNBC study measures all 50 states across 10 categories of competitiveness, for a total of 2,500 possible points. North Carolina scores 1,580 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.
In 2022, the Workforce category carries by far the most weight, with workers in painfully short supply. We have also retooled the category, measuring things like industry-recognized skills as companies look for states with a ready pipeline of the kind of workers they need.
"There is a stark need for people who have the ability to work not only with their hands, but then to troubleshoot that back across technology," said Tom Stringer, managing director of the national site selection practice at BDO in New York.
Here are all this year's categories and point totals:
- Workforce: 410 points (16%)
- Infrastructure: 380 points (15%)
- Cost of Doing Business: 345 points (14%)
- Economy: 325 points (13%)
- Life, Health & Inclusion: 325 points (13%)
- Technology & Innovation: 250 points (10%)
- Business Friendliness: 200 points (8%)
- Education: 165 points (7%)
- Access to Capital: 50 points (2%)
- Cost of Living: 50 points (2%)
This year's runner-up is Washington. The Evergreen State captured top honors in 2017 and became a consistent contender after that, but it dropped out of the top five last year when the study put more emphasis on business costs as the Covid pandemic waned. The renewed focus on Workforce in 2022 plays to Washington's strengths.
No state has a greater concentration of STEM workers (science, technology, engineering and math). One in 10 Washington workers makes their living in those key professions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But costs are still high in the state, leaving companies and families particularly vulnerable to inflation.
Finishing third is Virginia. The Old Dominion became the first back-to-back Top State for Business in 2021 on the strength of its education system and its workforce. But net migration to the state among college-educated workers has slowed, according to Census figures, hurting the commonwealth's Workforce ranking.
Colorado finishes at No. 4 on the strength of America's top Workforce as measured by the CNBC study. Nearly 42% of Centennial State workers hold a bachelor's degree or higher, according to the Census Bureau, making Colorado workers the nation's second most educated (after Massachusetts). But those workers command some of the nation's highest wages, hurting the state's standing in Cost of Doing Business.
Rounding out the top five is Texas. The Lone Star State maintains its perfect record — it has never finished outside the top five, a feat unmatched by any other state. Not only is the Texas workforce outstanding, but it is also growing fast, as companies and people flock to the state.
When they arrive, however, they are finding a growing set of issues.
For companies, Texas has an increasingly bloated regulatory regime, according to researchers at George Mason University. That hurts the state's Business Friendliness ranking.
Residents, meanwhile, have limited options for child care. Health-care resources are stretched, too, in the state with the largest percentage of people without health insurance. Texas is another one of the five states with no anti-discrimination law for nondisabled residents. And it is further chipping away at inclusiveness under Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
While multiple measures aimed at transgender youth and their parents have either died in the legislature or been stalled in court, the deeply controversial election law that went into effect this year has made Texas one of the most difficult states to vote in, according to researchers at Northern Illinois University.
Put it all together, and Texas finishes at No. 49 for Life, Health and Inclusion, dragging down its overall ranking. The state's many other strengths keep it in the Top Five, just barely hanging on by 4 points over No. 6 Tennessee.
State movers and shakers
This year's Most Improved State is Oregon. The Beaver State rises 17 spots to finish at No. 18 overall. Like neighboring Washington, Oregon benefits from the CNBC study's renewed emphasis on Workforce over costs. But the state's economy has also bounced back sharply following the worst of the pandemic. Gross domestic product improved by 5.4% last year, following a 2.8% contraction in 2020.
Other improvements include Kentucky, rising 15 places to No. 26 thanks to improvements in its Workforce and Economy scores, and Vermont, jumping 11 spots to No. 31 with the help of a rising Business Friendliness ranking. This year, that category considers state support for emerging industries including cryptocurrency and cannabis, areas where the Green Mountain State excels.
On the downside, Connecticut and Maryland each fall 15 places (to No. 39 and No. 27, respectively). The states each decline in multiple categories, including Infrastructure, which for the first time considers cryptocurrency mining.
The biggest decline belongs to New Jersey, dropping 16 places to finish 42nd overall. The Garden State falls to dead last in the Economy category, including America's least healthy pension systems, according to data compiled by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
If there are top states, there must be bottom states.
This year's last place finisher is Mississippi.
While the Magnolia State offers the lowest cost of living and the lowest wage costs, it could be that you get what you pay for. Mississippi's workforce is among the nation's least educated, according to the Census Bureau, with the lowest concentration of STEM employees. It is also the least productive in terms of economic output per job.
Mississippi is also hurt by a glut of regulations, and by a lack of inclusiveness in state laws, including some of the most restrictive voting laws in the nation.
While Mississippi is also at the center of the abortion debate with the restrictive law that the Supreme Court upheld to overturn Roe v. Wade, this year's CNBC study did not consider abortion laws — they are still in flux in many states. So is businesses' stance on whether the laws will play a major role in their location decisions.
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves' office did not respond to a request for comment after the rankings were released.
Where does your state rank? Check out the full list, and let us know what you think by posting on social media with the hashtag #TopStates.
Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal owns NBC Sports.