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Cowlitz County Profile

Overview | Geographic facts | Outlook | Labor force and unemployment |
Industry employment | Wages and Income | Population


Regional context

Cowlitz County is located on the Columbia River, adjacent to the Portland metropolitan area. The county has two active ports, a highly-productive wood-products industry, two paper mills, a diverse manufacturing base and good rail and interstate highway linkages.

Local economy

What became Cowlitz County was first the home of the Cowlitz and Chinook tribes. The first white settlers came in 1825, and a farm was established by representatives of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Indians who had survived smallpox were forcibly removed in 1855 to reservations in other parts of the state. The Cowlitz has since been recognized as a tribe by the federal government.

White settlers continued moving in, but the area really took off in the 1920s. R.A. Long built the world’s largest sawmill. Weyerhaeuser built another sawmill, and the Longview Fiber paper mill opened as well.

The city of Longview was developed as a planned community to support timber workers. The Depression slowed things down, but World War II brought an economic boom, including the construction of the Reynolds aluminum smelter.

Much has changed in the intervening years. In the late 1970s, there were 6,400 timber jobs in the county, and a third of all jobs were in manufacturing. The county’s per capita income was close to the state average and above the national average. Since then, timber and manufacturing employment has declined, and wages and income have not kept up with the rest of the nation. The county has had some success with diversification, but it has been a case of two steps forward, one step back.

During the Great Recession, Cowlitz lost 9 percent of its nonfarm employment, more than the state or nation. Its unemployment rate topped 14 percent (not seasonally adjusted) at one point, before easing downward at the end of 2010. By fits and starts, employment growth turned positive in 2010, helped by construction projects from new investments: a new grain terminal, a new steel pipe plant and two new Wal-Marts. However, hiring stagnated in 2011. Finally in mid-2013 a rapid recovery began. By the end of 2014, the county was a few hundred jobs short of recovering all the jobs lost in the recession. Unemployment, while falling, remained high and the labor force was significantly below its pre-recession level.

In 2014, one-sixth of Cowlitz County’s employment base was in manufacturing, including two paper mills, several sawmills, a large chicken processor, as well as numerous smaller producers in machinery, fabricated metals, chemicals and other segments. The county has excellent transportation connections, including two active ports, rail connections and the Interstate 5 corridor.


Geographic facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Cowlitz County Rank in state
Land area, 2013 (square miles) 1,140.13 28
Persons per square mile, 2013 89.8 12



As 2014 was drawing to an end, Cowlitz County was poised to finish recovering from the past recession and move into a period of expansion. Employment was growing faster than the national and state average. The county’s most important sector, manufacturing, has been steadily hiring. Unemployment, while high, has been falling and the labor force was starting to increase.

The Port of Kalama has been selected as a site for the production and export of methane by a multinational consortium. This project could have a major positive impact on employment over the next few years, including an estimated 1,000 construction jobs, 240 production jobs, spinoffs and a multiplier impact. A similar project at the Port of Clatskanie (immediately across the Columbia River from Cowlitz County and part of its labor shed) could also benefit county residents.

Labor force and unemployment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

Over the past two decades, Cowlitz County’s unemployment rate has run about two percentage points higher than the national average during good times and three or four points higher during recessions. The county rate topped 13 percent in 2009, before gradually easing down to the 8 percent range in 2014. The county labor force in 2014 was 7 percent lower than in 2008.


Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

A recap of the last dozen years: Cowlitz County was hit harder by the 2001 recession than the state, in part due to the closure of the former Reynolds aluminum smelter. Expansion resumed in 2004, was strong in 2005, but tapered off beginning in 2006. The county led the nation going into a recession in mid-2007, hitting bottom in August 2009. Employment went largely sideways until mid-2013, when a fierce recovery began. By the end of 2014, the county was approaching its pre-recession peak.

Construction and mining employment in the county, which peaked at 3,300 jobs in early 2007, fell by a third to 2,200 jobs (-33 percent) in 2009. Construction has played a big part in the recovery, adding several hundred jobs since mid-2013.

Manufacturing lost 2,000 jobs in the 2001 recession and another 1,400 in the 2008 downturn. The good news: a steady expansion since early 2011, adding 700 jobs to reach 6,600 at the end of 2014. Paper products and durable goods outside of wood products have both been job-generators.

Wholesale trade payrolls grew rapidly between the recessions (+600 jobs), gave up 400 jobs in the downturn and by the end of 2014 had regained nearly all of them, topping the 1,500 mark. Retail jobs fell modestly in 2008 and have moved largely sideways since then, stabilizing at 4,500 jobs in 2014, about 200 below its previous peak. Taxable sales at retail outlets have been slowly recovering but remain 14 percent below the 2006 peak. Transportation jobs, which sometimes swing widely around port activity, declined to 1,500 jobs in 2011-13, before slipping a bit further in 2014.

The finance and insurance industry lost 400 jobs in the downturn and gained almost half of them back by late 2014. The county’s small professional services industry lost about 100 jobs in the recession and has stabilized at 700 jobs.

Business services employment has trended upward due to an increase in staffing services. There have been large month-to-month swings in this industry—monthly counts oscillated between 1,200 and 1,700 in 2014. Healthcare and social assistance added jobs during the recession, cut back slightly in 2012 and recovered to 6,200 jobs in 2014.

Leisure and hospitality mirrored the overall employment trend, losing jobs, going sideways and then recovering rapidly. Its 2014 employment of 3,500 matched its 2007 level. Restaurants reached an all-time high in 2014, while lodging revenues remained somewhat subdued.

Government employment peaked at 6,000 jobs in 2008, before losing about 100 jobs a year over the past three years. Most of the cuts were in K-12 education. About 100 of those jobs had been recovered by the end of 2014.

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 2013, 12.8 percent of the jobs in Cowlitz County were held by workers under the age of 25, while 23.5 percent of jobs were held by those aged 55 and over. The rest of the jobs were split between those age 25 to 34 (19.1 percent), 35 to 44 (21.2 percent) and 45 to 54 (23.5 percent). The county’s age profile was somewhat older than the state’s.

Jobholders were almost evenly divided between men (51.6 percent) and women (48.4 percent). There were substantial differences in gender dominance by industry.

  • Male-dominated industries included construction (88.1 percent), manufacturing (79.6 percent), wholesale trade (76.0 percent), transportation (82.8 percent) and business services (68.1 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (83.5 percent), finance and insurance (80.9 percent) and educational services (public and private combined, 74.1 percent).

The recession affected men more than women in Cowlitz County. Male employment fell by an age-adjusted 10 percent, while female employment declined by 7 percent. Younger workers were also disproportionately impacted. From mid-2007 to 2013, teen employment (under the age of 19) fell by 30 percent and jobs held by 19 to 21 year olds dropped by 20 percent.


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 Cowlitz County in 2013 was $20.28, 20 cents higher than the 2012 median and almost $2 per hour below the state 2013 median. Cowlitz was higher than the state until 1998. Over the past twenty years, the median has been increasing at a slow rate (an average of 0.4 percent per year), though there have been times of faster growth and times of stagnation. Over the past decade, wage inequality has increased. Wages below the median have stagnated, while the average wage for the top 10 percent of jobs rose by 29 percent.

The 2013 average annual wage was approximately $43,706, well below the state and national averages. The average rose by 6 percent in the past two years; half of the increase was due to a big jump in wages in the paper industry.

During the downturn from 2007 to 2010, county job losses were concentrated in the lower and middle wage ranges. The number of jobs paying below $16.00 per hour fell by 13 percent and the number paying $16.00 to $25.99 per hour dropped by 16 percent. Higher-wage jobs paying $26.00 or more declined by 2 percent and there was actually an increase in the number of jobs paying $48.00 per hour or more. The recovery period from 2010 to 2013 brought little change: a small (4 percent) gain in lower-wage jobs (mostly under $12.00 per hour), a smaller decline in middle-wage jobs and an even smaller increase in higher-wage jobs. The total change over the six-year period: significant losses in lower- and middle-wage jobs and an increase in higher-wage jobs, largely in paper manufacturing and health care & social assistance.

Not surprisingly, household income declined sharply in the recession, but somewhat surprisingly, incomes have bounced back. Median household income declined from 2008 to 2010, but the 2013 median of $48,417 was not statistically different from 2008. When comparing the percent of households in different income ranges, there again was no statistically significant difference between 2009 and 2013. Single-year estimates from the American Community Survey do have a relatively large margin of error, so there was some, but not a lot of comfort in knowing things were not a lot worse.

Similarly, the estimated poverty rate for 2010 was substantially higher (6 percentage points) than the 16 percent rate recorded for 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. While it would not be a surprise that poverty worsened, a jump of that magnitude would need more years of data for verification.

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 2012, Cowlitz County per capita personal income was $34,867, more than 20 percent below the state and nation. Per capita income has grown substantially slower than the state and nation for over thirty years.



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

Cowlitz County’s population was estimated at 101,860 in 2013. The county has grown slightly slower than the nation over the past decade and quite a bit slower than the state, especially since 2010. In 2013-14, there were more deaths than births in the county, a reflection of its demographics: Cowlitz has relatively more older residents (aged 60 and older) and fewer young adults (aged 20 to 39). Longview was the largest city in the county, at 36,530, with adjacent Kelso the next biggest at 11,810.

Population facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Cowlitz County Washington state
Population 2013 101,860 6,971,406
Population 2010 102,410 6,724,543
Percent change, 2010 to 2013 -0.5% 3.7%

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

The county was much less diverse in terms of race and ethnicity than the state. In 2013, 92.0 percent of Cowlitz’s population was white compared with 81.2 percent at the state level. Less than 9 percent of Cowlitz County’s population is Latino versus 11.9 percent of the state.


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Cowlitz County Washington state
Population by age, 2013
Under 5 years old 5.9% 6.4%
Under 18 years old 23.2% 22.9%
65 years and older 17.6% 13.6%
Females, 2013 50.4% 50.0%
Race/ethnicity, 2013
White alone, not Hispanic or Latino 92.0% 81.2%
Black 0.8% 4.0%
American Indian, Alaskan Native 1.9% 1.9%
Asian, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander 1.9% 8.6%
Hispanic or Latino, any race 8.2% 11.9%

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

For the 2009-13 period, 87.4 percent of Cowlitz County’s adults 25 years and older were high school graduates, roughly the same as the national average and bit below the state average. The ranks of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, at 15.4 percent, were about half the state average, reflecting the industry and occupational structure of the county.