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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 8 percent of its nonfarm employment, more than the state or nation. Its unemployment rate hit 15 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 on new investments: a new grain terminal, a new steel pipe plant and two new Wal-Marts. However, employment retrenched in 2011, stagnated in 2012 and then dipped again in 2013.

In 2013, 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 Interstate 5.


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 90.6 12



In 2013, unemployment remained high and the county lost jobs. Hopefully the county labor market has hit bottom—the question is how fast it will recover. There are some rays of hope, but they may be a few years out. In particular, the announcement that a joint venture between China and BP (the former British Petroleum) is planning to build up to four methanol plants in the area (two in Kalama, two across the river in Clatskanie, Oregon, but well within the Cowlitz labor market) holds the promise of creating many construction jobs as the plants are built and up to 480 manufacturing jobs after completion. Until then (plant completion scheduled for 2018), the pace of improvement may be slow.

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 average annual rate in the county topped 13 percent in 2009, before easing down a point a year through 2013. The improvement was illusory as the decline in the rate was due almost entirely to the workforce shrinking as discouraged workers dropped from the ranks of the unemployed. The already-low labor force participation rate was close to 52 percent in 2013, well below the national mark of 63 percent. Part of the difference was due to a higher percent of the local population claiming disability—5.2 percent in Cowlitz in 2012 vs. 2.9 percent statewide—but that did not explain the majority of the gap.


Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

A recap of the last decade: 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. A nascent recovery in 2010 proved to be short-lived, with the county losing jobs in the 2011-13 period. Almost every industry remained below its pre-recession level.

As in many areas of the country, construction employment in the county was decimated in the recession. Payrolls peaked at 3,400 jobs in early 2007, bottomed out at 2,000 jobs (-41 percent) before recovering slightly to 2,400 jobs at the end of 2013. The number of housing permits issued plummeted from over 700 units in 2006 to fewer than 100 in 2013.

Like elsewhere, manufacturing was hit second hardest. In Cowlitz, after the 2001 recession, factory jobs had stabilized at 7,300 jobs until early in 2007. Employment bottomed out at 5,800 jobs in mid-2009 (-21 percent), before a modest recovery to 6,300 jobs in 2013.

Wholesale trade slid by 300 jobs, from 1,600 to 1,300 (-19 percent), before gaining back 100. Retail outlets cut 500 jobs falling to 4,300 (-10 percent), rallied with the opening of a new Wal-Mart and then retrenched again. Taxable sales suffered a hefty 24 percent decline from the pre-recession peak, but have made up half that ground in the past two years. Transportation jobs, while sometimes quite variable due to port activity, trended at 1,700 jobs through the downturn but slipped below 1,500 in 2013.

The financial services sector cut almost a fourth of its payroll, falling from 1,600 to 1,200, with the closure of the Cowlitz Bank in mid-2010 being a low point (it was acquired by Heritage Bank). Over 100 jobs have been added in the recovery.

The county’s small professional services industry has lost 100 jobs over the past five years, dropping from 800 to 700 jobs. Business services employment fluctuated around 1,000 jobs over the past five years, with most of the variance due to staffing services.

Healthcare and social assistance held steady at 5,000 jobs in 2009 and 2010, added 100 jobs in 2011, then cut back to 5,000 in 2012 and stayed put in 2013.

Leisure and hospitality lost 500 of its 3,500 jobs in the downturn and has recovered about half of the loss since then. Restaurant revenues had almost completely recovered by mid-2013, but lodging revenues were still 13 percent below their last peak.

Government agencies employed 6,000 workers in 2008 and 5,700 in 2013. Half of the cuts were in public K-12 schools.

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 2012, 12 percent of the jobs in Cowlitz County were held by workers under the age of 25, while 23 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 percent), 35 to 44 (21 percent) and 45 to 54 (24 percent). The county’s age profile was somewhat older than the state’s.

Jobs were almost evenly divided between men (51.1 percent) and women (47.9 percent). There were substantial differences in gender dominance by industry.

  • Male-dominated industries included construction (88 percent), manufacturing (80 percent), wholesale trade (77 percent), transportation (85 percent) and business services (71 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (84 percent), finance and insurance (82 percent) and educational services (public and private combined, 74 percent).

The recession affected men more than women in Cowlitz County, but the “recovery” (when the county continued to lose jobs, 2010-13) was worse for women. Looking at the change of employment from fourth quarter 2007 through first quarter 2013, employment for both sexes declined by about 10 percent. Younger workers were also disproportionately impacted. Teen employment (under the age of 19) fell by 36 percent and jobs held by 19 to 21 year olds dropped by 21 percent. Meanwhile, the number of jobs held by older workers aged 65 and up increased by 5 percent. While the number of older workers is still small (about 4 percent of the workforce), it will likely increase for a number of reasons. First, as the health of older people has increased, many are choosing to stay in the workforce. Second, some who might prefer to retire have not saved adequately and will be forced to continue working. Third, women’s labor force participation rate increased substantially in the 1970 – 2000 period. As this cohort hits 65, more of them will have been in the workforce and will continue working, whether by choice or necessity.


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 2012 was $19.84, almost $2 per hour below the state median. There has been little change in the median wage since 2002 – only about 1 percent, after adjustment for inflation. During that time period, wages below the median have stagnated, while the average wage for the top 10 percent of jobs rose by 15 percent.

The 2012 average annual wage was approximately $41,649, well below the state ($51,964) and national ($49,289) averages. The average has risen relatively slowly over the past two decades.

During the recession, from 2007 to 2010, job losses were spread fairly evenly across the wage spectrum, except at the upper end—there was actually an increase in the number of higher wage jobs ($40 per hour and up). From 2010 to 2012, almost 80 percent of net new jobs paid below $12 per hour.

Not surprisingly, household income declined sharply in the recession. Single-year estimates from the American Community Survey should be viewed with caution. According to the 2012 estimates, the county’s median household income increased by 10 percent. There is simply no corroborating evidence—such as an increase in income or wages—to support such a sizable gain in incomes. Even with that shift, the median was below the 2008 figure and the county had substantially more very-low-income households (below $15,000 per year).

Similarly, the estimated poverty rate for 2012 showed a steep drop, falling almost four percentage points to 16.7 percent. That would put it only marginally higher than in 2006.

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, well below the state and nation. Per capita income has grown slightly slower than the state and nation over the past decade.



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

According to state estimates, Cowlitz County’s population was 103,300 in 2013. The county has grown slower than both the state and the nation over the past decade. As with many areas, growth slowed dramatically in 2010, as net in-migration was near zero. Longview was the largest city in the county, at 36,940, with adjacent Kelso the next biggest at 11,940.

Population facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Cowlitz County Washington state
Population 2012 101,996 6,897,012
Population 2000 92,948 5,894,121
Percent change, 2000 to 2012 9.7% 17.0%

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

When compared with the state and nation, Cowlitz County had roughly the same proportion of children (aged 0 to 19), fewer younger adults (20 – 39), about the same number of middle-aged adults (40-59) and more older residents.

Cowlitz County has a slightly greater proportion of females in its population (50.4 percent) compared to the state (50.1 percent).

The county was much less diverse in terms of race and ethnicity than the state. In 2012, 85 percent of Cowlitz’s population was white non-Latino compared with 72 percent at the state level. Only 8 percent of Cowlitz County’s population is Latino versus 12 percent of the state.


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Cowlitz County Washington state
Population by age, 2012
Under 5 years old 6.2% 6.4%
Under 18 years old 23.4% 23.0%
65 years and older 16.9% 13.2%
Females, 2012 50.4% 50.1%
Race/ethnicity, 2012
White alone, not Hispanic or Latino 85.3% 71.6%
Black 0.8% 3.9%
American Indian, Alaskan Native 1.9% 1.8%
Asian, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander 2.0% 8.4%
Hispanic or Latino, any race 8.0% 11.7%

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Cowlitz County’s adults 25 years and older were somewhat less likely to be high school graduates (86.7 percent) vs. the state (90.4 percent) in 2012. There was a sizable gap between the county and the state in terms of the proportion of adults with a bachelor’s or higher degree: 15.9 percent for Cowlitz, 31.6 percent for the state. The difference was due in large part to the occupational structure of the county, which has substantially fewer jobs that require a four-year degree or higher.