MAIDEN, N.C. — Here in this once-thriving town of furniture makers and textile mills, where Main Street businesses have vanished, nearby fast-food joints have closed and unemployment is rampant, government officials have lined up behind a flashy digital answer to all the heartache: The cloud.
Total new full-time jobs running the facility: 50.
Apple’s data center has been a disappointing development for many residents, who can’t comprehend how expensive facilities stretching across hundreds of acres can create so few jobs, especially after thousands of positions in the region have been lost to cheaper foreign competition. But in the newer digital economy, capital investments that a generation ago would have created thousands of new positions often equal only a handful today, with computers and software processing the heavy lifting while the key programming is often done by engineers back in Silicon Valley.
“Apple really doesn’t mean a thing to this town,” said Tony Parker, the owner of Temple Furniture, one of the last surviving furniture makers in Maiden.
His son-in-law, Kelly McRee, the company’s operations manager, said: “Apple was the apple of everybody’s eye, but that’s about it. It was something for everyone to ooh and aah over.”
That hasn’t stopped state and local officials from awarding huge financial incentives to some of the biggest names in computing — Apple, Google, Facebook — to locate their data centers in the battered North Carolina foothills region, where unemployment is near 13 percent. Cloud computing is a fast-growing sector of technology, allowing companies to store data and run software on off-site servers. The data centers that power the cloud and run programs such as Gmail and iTunes employ thousands of servers but only dozens of people.
The mismatch between investment and jobs created is illustrative of the structural unemployment challenges the country faces, experts say. Blue-collar workers laid off during the downturn find far fewer job openings in the high-tech sector and usually lack the necessary skills. The Obama administration has called this the “brawny-man problem,” and one key piece of evidence for it is in North Carolina’s unemployment rate. Despite cozying up to iconic technology firms, the state still has the one of the highest overall jobless rates in the country, at 10.5 percent.
Apple’s data center is also supposed to create 250 indirect contracting jobs for maintenance and security. But many in this close-knit town of about 3,400 people — it essentially shuts down Friday nights for high school football — do not know anyone working at Apple.
Samantha Saunders, the longtime owner of a Main Street hardware store, where the old hardwood floors creak and a fresh-paint scent wafts through the cramped aisles, said the only contact she has had with an Apple employee is when one came in to make keys for the facility.