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Clark County Profile

Overview

Regional context


Clark County is located in southwest Washington on the Columbia River, roughly 100 miles upstream from the Pacific Ocean. It is the fifth most populous county in the state. 

Clark County is part of the Portland Metropolitan Area. Its economy can be understood only in that context: one-third of the county’s labor force, over 50,000 workers, commutes to Portland on a daily basis, while only 11,000 commute in the opposite direction. The lack of a sales tax in Oregon has led to significant leakage of retail sales, lowering both retail investment and tax revenues for local governments. Clark County has excellent transportation linkages, including proximity to Portland International Airport, location on east-west and north-south rail lines and immediate access to Interstate 5 north-south and Interstate 84 heading east. 

Local economy

Clark County, when originally occupied by white settlers, was primarily an agricultural and timber economy. In fact, the first apple tree in the state is still standing there.

The Camas paper mill was started in the 1870s. The cheap power from damming the Columbia helped spur industrialization, including an aluminum smelter built in the late 1930s that closed in 2001 following the Enron energy price manipulation.

In the 1970s, the county began to attract investment in electronics, which became its most important industry in the 1990s and remains so today, despite the loss of one-third of its employment base in the 2001 recession. Wafertech, Hewlett Packard, SEH America and Linear Semiconductor are important employers.

Employment grew rapidly in all sectors during the 1990s, but slowed after the 2001 recession. Construction and homebuilding remained strong until the housing bubble burst in 2006-07. The county lost 6 percent of its employment base in the downturn, about the same as the state and nation, but by the end of 2015 was 9 percent above its pre-recession peak, compared with 6 percent for the state and 3 percent for the nation.

Major industry sectors in Clark County include healthcare and social assistance (23,600 jobs in 2015), professional & business services (18,100), retail trade (17,200 jobs), leisure and hospitality (14,000 jobs) and manufacturing (13,100 jobs). In addition, government employed 24,000, over half of which were in public education.

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Geographic facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Clark County Rank in state
Land area, 2010 (square miles) 629 35
Persons per square mile, 2010 676 2

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Outlook

Clark County’s labor market had another solid year of improvement in 2015. Employment was up 4 percent for the second year in a row. Most sectors were adding jobs. This kind of broad-based growth will likely characterize 2016 and perhaps beyond that year as well. The exception may be manufacturing, which has been impacted by weak overseas markets and a strong dollar.

The county will gain over 600 high-wage jobs when Banfield Pet Hospitals moves its headquarters from Portland to Vancouver in spring 2016. In addition, developers broke ground on an extensive planned redevelopment of the waterfront along the Columbia River west of Interstate 5. Apartments, condos, hotels, restaurants and retail are all part of the plan, with more possibilities underway on adjacent land owned by the Port of Vancouver. Finally, planning for a casino owned by the Cowlitz Tribe near La Center will likely proceed now that most legal challenges have been overcome.

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Labor force and unemployment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

Current labor force and unemployment statistics are available on the Labor area summaries page.

Clark County’s unemployment rate was below the state and national averages throughout the 1990s, but above both since 2000. The financial meltdown and subsequent recession widened the gap to four percentage points in 2010. Unemployment has dropped since then due to job growth, but remains higher than average, with a preliminary average of 6.5 percent in 2015. The county was only two tenths of a point above the state average in November of that year.

Estimates of the county labor force and employed residents should be used with caution, since their trend is significantly different—much weaker growth—than nonfarm employment, a more trustworthy data series, shows. It is in any case likely that labor force participation rate has fallen further than can be explained by demographic trends and that a significant number of residents of prime working age (22 to 54) have yet to return to the labor market. 

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Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

Current industry employment statistics are available on the Labor area summaries page.

Over the past 20 years, Clark County nonfarm employment has grown more than twice as fast as the nation’s and much faster than the state’s. During the 2008-09 recession, employment fell by 6 percent, closely tracking the state and nation. In early 2013 hiring accelerated and by the end of 2015 the county had outpaced both state and nation. Some detail:

  • Construction employment in the county fell by 4,600 jobs (-35 percent) in the downturn. At the end of 2015, only 2,500 of these jobs had come back. The housing market has perked up; 2015 was on track to top 2,000 permits for single-family homes and over 1,000 for multi-family units, the best total since 2006, but still below the average of 4,000 for 1992-2005.
  • Manufacturing lost 2,600 jobs (-19 percent), but had better luck than construction, with 1,900 coming back. Fabricated metals, other durable goods (which includes primary metals), food processing and other nondurable goods have all surpassed their pre-recession levels of employment, while wood and paper products have continued to cut jobs.
  • Wholesale trade employment dropped by 11 percent (-600 jobs) before roaring back with 1,800 jobs in the recovery, for a net gain of 1,100 jobs, as Clark County continued to develop as a distribution center.
  • Employment in retail trade declined by 1,400 jobs (-8 percent), as taxable retail sales dropped by 20 percent from the pre-recession peak. Both employment and sales began to recover in 2011 and by the end of 2015, the job loss had been recouped and then some with a net gain of 1,300 jobs. By mid-2015, taxable sales were 10 percent above their previous peak.
  • Transportation & warehousing fell by 4 percent in the downturn and have gained less than 100 back.
  • Like transportation, information services continued to lose jobs when other industries had begun to hire. Unlike transportation, it hit bottom at the end of 2012 and recovered all of its losses in 2013. By the end of 2015, the industry was over 300 jobs above its pre-recession peak.
  • Finance & insurance shed 600 jobs in 2007-08 (-13 percent). Hiring resumed in 2012 and by then end of 2015, the industry had 1,000 jobs more than before the recession.
  • It was a different matter with real estate, rental & leasing, which was hit not only by the downturn in real estate, but the decline of video rental stores. Employment declined by 500 jobs (-19 percent) from its 2007 high, with a 200-job gain since 2010.
  • Professional services lost almost 200 jobs on the way down (-4 percent), but has grown by over 1,600 jobs on the way back. Computer systems design expanded continuously, adding 500 jobs since 2007.
  • Clark County received a big shot in the arm when PeaceHealth moved its headquarters to Vancouver after purchasing the Southwest Medical Center. Partly as a result, employment in corporate offices rose by 1,300 jobs since 2008. Some of that increase was due to employment being reclassified from health care to corporate office administration.
  • Business services employed 7,100 in early 2008 when the recession-related layoffs began in earnest. The industry lost 1,000 of those jobs in a year’s time, before working its way back to a net gain of 600 jobs. Most of the loss came in temporary staffing services, which remained 400 jobs below its 2006 peak at the end of 2015.
  • Private educational services was one of the few sectors that grew through the recession, gaining 700 jobs (+65 percent).
  • Healthcare and social assistance added 1,900 jobs (10 percent) during the downturn, though the annual growth rate slowed. About half the increase came in home health services. The recovery brought another 3,000 jobs to this sector.
  • Leisure & hospitality suffered a sizable loss (-1,200 jobs, -9 percent) with a rally beginning in 2011 that resulted in a net gain of 800 jobs. There was some shifting within this sector, however. Arts, entertainment & recreation services lost 100 jobs, accommodations gained 100, full-service restaurants employed 200 more and limited-service restaurant 800 more, than before the recession. By 2015, taxable sales at both restaurants and lodging were both substantially higher than their pre-downturn levels.
  • Public sector payrolls continued to rise in the early part of the recession, growing by 900 jobs, mostly in public education, before peaking in 2009. Cutbacks occurred over the next two years, before being restored over the past four years. By the end of 2015, federal employment was 400 jobs higher than in 2007; state government was just about even; public K-12 education was up 900 jobs and other local governments were still short by 400 jobs.

For historical industry employment data, contact an economist.

Industry employment by age and gender

(Source: The Local Employment Dynamics)

The Local Employment Dynamics (LED) database, a joint project of state employment departments and the U.S. Census Bureau, matches state employment data with federal administrative data. Among the products is industry employment by age and gender. All workers covered by state unemployment insurance data are included; federal workers and non-covered workers, such as the self-employed, are not. Data are presented by place of work, not place of residence. Some highlights:

In 2014, 13 percent of the jobs in Clark County were held by workers under the age of 25, while 21 percent of jobs were held by those aged 55 and over. The rest of the jobs were evenly split among those aged 25 to 34, 35 to 44 and 45 to 54 with each about 22 percent of the total. The county’s age profile closely matches that of the state.

Jobs were almost evenly divided between men (48 percent) and women (52 percent) in 2014. There were substantial differences in gender dominance by industry.

  • Male-dominated industries included construction (82 percent), manufacturing (73 percent) and wholesale trade (69 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (80 percent), educational services (public and private combined, 74 percent) and finance and insurance (60 percent).

The recession affected men much more than women in Clark County, but the former benefitted more from the recovery. After adjustment for population growth, male employment fell by 2.0 percent from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2014, while female employment barely increased (0.4 percent). Younger workers were also disproportionately affected. Teen employment (under the age of 19) fell by 34.1 percent. Jobs held by 19 to 21 year-olds dropped by 10.9 percent.

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Wages and income

(Source: Employment Security Department; Bureau of Labor Statistics; Bureau of Economic Analysis; U.S. Census Bureau; U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey)

The median hourly wage for jobs in Clark County in 2014 was $20.32, over $2 per hour below the state median. After adjustment for inflation, there was no change from 2013 and only a 1.3 percent increase since 2002. The county has been seeing an increase in the number of higher-wage jobs. The average wage for the top 10 percent of jobs has risen by 17 percent since 2002. The average wage for jobs paying below the median rose only 1.2 percent over the same period.

The 2014 average annual wage was $46,330, well below the state and national averages. The average has risen almost every year for the past two decades. The stagnation of the median wage and the increase in the average wage further confirm that wages have been increasing on the upper end of the wage scale, but not in the middle and lower segments.

During the recession, there were substantially higher losses for low- and medium-wage jobs than for higher-wage jobs, as shown in the table below. For example, the number of jobs paying below $12 per hour fell by 10.1 percent, while the number of those paying above $30 per hour declined by 1.5 percent. In the recovery, job creation was much more balanced across the wage spectrum. Overall, from 2007 to 2014, there was relatively little change in the number of jobs paying below $30 per hour and a significant increase in the number paying $30 per hour and higher. The industries with the largest change in higher-wage jobs were corporate headquarters (NAICS 55), health care and finance.

Not surprisingly, median household income declined sharply in the recession, falling 10 percent from 2007 to 2010 – compared with 4 percent for the state and 6 percent nationally. From 2010 to 2014, however, the county rose by 5 percent, the state by 3 percent and there was essentially no change at the national level. All three were still below the 2007 median.

Clark County’s poverty rate rose from 9.3 percent in 2007 to 13.7 percent in 2011, before falling back to 9.3 percent in 2014—much lower than the state and nation. The large drop in 2014 (from 12.4 percent to 9.3 percent) may have been a statistical fluke. The poverty rate for children was higher, but followed the same pattern, going from 11.0 percent to 18.0 percent then down to 11.2 percent.

Personal income

Personal income includes earned income, investment income, and government payments such as Social Security and Veterans Benefits. Investment income includes income imputed from pension funds and from owning a home. Per capita personal income equals total personal income divided by the resident population.

In 2014, Clark County per capita personal income was $43,153, well below the state and nation. Per capita income fell by 7 percent in the recession, but had mostly recovered by 2014. Investment income is still well below where it was in 2008, before the stock market plummeted. Transfer payments have risen by 51 percent, driven by an aging population (Social Security and Medicare) and the expansion of health insurance coverage for low-income residents (Medicaid). In addition, expenditures for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps) have more than doubled due to the lingering impacts of the recession. Clark per capita income was above the national average in 1997, but has not kept pace and was 6 percent below in 2014. The gap is primarily due to lower average earnings.

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Population

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Office of Financial Management )

Clark County’s population was estimated at 442,800 in 2015. The county was the fastest-growing in the state in the 1990s and one of the faster ones in the 2000s until the recession hit. Growth was spurred by in-migration of new residents, but in 2010, more people moved out of the county than moved in for the first time since 1984. In-migration turned (barely) positive in 2011 and then roared back in 2014 and 2015. Vancouver is the largest city in the county and the fourth largest in the state, with a population of 170,400 in 2015.

Population facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Clark County Washington state
Population estimate for 2015 442,800 7,061,410
Population 2000 345,238 5,894,121
Percent change, 2000 to 2015 30.9% 19.8%

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

When compared with the state and nation, Clark County’s population has a greater proportion of its population between the ages of 5 and 19 years old, a smaller proportion aged 20 to 34 and similar proportions for other ages.

The county is much less diverse in terms of race and ethnicity than the state and nation, but has been slowly getting more diverse. In 2014, 81.0 percent of Clark’s population was white and not Hispanic, compared with 71 percent statewide and 63 percent nationally. Just over 8 percent of Clark County’s population was Hispanic or Latino, versus 12 percent of the state and 17 percent nationally.

Females in the 2013 Clark County population estimate made up 50.6 percent compared to 50.0 percent for the state.

Demographics

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Clark County Washington State
Population by age, 2014
Under 5 years old 6.3% 6.3%
Under 18 years old 25.2% 22.7%
65 years and older 13.8% 14.1%
Females, 2014 50.5% 50.0%
Race/ethnicity, 2014
White alone, not Hispanic or Latino 80.0% 70.4%
Black 2.2% 4.1%
American Indian, Alaskan Native 1.1% 1.9%
Asian, Native Hawaiian, Other Pacific Islander 5.4% 8.9%
Hispanic or Latino, any race 8.7% 12.2%

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

In 2014, 27.0 percent of Clark County residents age 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher. That was a bit lower than the nation (30.1 percent) and state (33.1 percent). As Clark continues to attract more managerial and professional jobs, the county’s educational attainment will move closer to the state and nation.

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