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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 7 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, before finally taking off in 2013. By the end of 2015, preliminary estimates showed employment had fully recovered and the county was poised for further growth.

In 2015, 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, 2010 (square miles) 1,140 28
Persons per square mile, 2010 89.8 12



As 2015 came to an end, Cowlitz County’s economy seemed poised to move forward. A joint venture between China and BP (the former British Petroleum) is planning to build methanol plants in Kalama and Clatskanie (across the Columbia River in Oregon, but well within the Cowlitz labor market). The projects will create more than 1,000 construction jobs as the plants are built and up to 400 manufacturing jobs after completion. If all goes as scheduled, construction on the Kalama project will begin at the end of 2016, with the plant operational at the end of 2019.

So a likely scenario for the next few years is for moderate employment growth in 2016, some boom years from construction employment and a return to a more normal labor market in 2020.

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 2015, when the preliminary annual rate was 7.7 percent. The county’s labor force participation rate dropped to around 56 percent, substantially lower than the national mark of 63 percent.


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 2012. A rapid recovery finally took hold halfway through 2013 and by the end of 2015 employment topped its pre-recession peak.

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 and bottomed out at 2,100 jobs (-41 percent) before recovering somewhat to 2,600 jobs in 2014. The industry had a bit of an off year in 2015, losing 200 jobs.

Historically the county averaged about 500 housing permits a year. The bubble years drove that number up to 700 units in 2006. The market for new homes bottomed out in 2011 (113 permits) and has only partially recovered (178 permits in 2014).

And 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 recovering to 6,500 jobs in 2015. Most of the loss during the recession was in paper products; the county has seen steady growth in other durable goods such as metals and machinery

Wholesale trade slid by 300 jobs, from 1,600 to 1,300 (-19 percent), but by the end of 2015 had fully recovered the loss. Retailers cut 500 jobs falling to 4,300 (-10 percent), rallied with the opening of a new Wal-Mart, retrenched again and then began adding jobs in 2014. Employment fully recovered from the recession in 2015. Taxable sales suffered a hefty 24 percent decline from the pre-recession peak, but like employment finally made it back to previous levels in 2015. Transportation jobs, while sometimes quite volatile due to port activity, trended at 1,700 jobs through the downturn and returned there in 2015.

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). By the end of 2015, half of the gap had been closed, as job counts hovered around 1,400.

The county’s professional services industry has lost 100 jobs over the past five years, dropping from 800 to 700 jobs. Business services employment has steadily risen over the past four years, with most of the growth coming in staffing services.

Healthcare and social assistance peaked at 6,000 jobs in late 2011, declined in 2012, but began adding jobs again in 2014 and was just under 6,000 jobs in 2015.

Leisure and hospitality lost 500 of its 3,500 in the downturn, then had a very uneven recovery before returning to that level in late 2013. Employment has been steady since then. Hotel/motel sales had completely recovered by early 2015 and restaurant sales have risen rapidly over the past few years.

Government agencies employed 6,000 workers in 2008 and the same number in 2015. State government and K-12 school employment were both a little lower, while local government employment was a bit higher.

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, 12 percent of the jobs in Cowlitz County were held by workers under the age of 25, while 24 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 (22 percent) and 45 to 54 (23 percent). The county’s age profile was somewhat older than the state’s.

Jobs were almost evenly divided between men (53 percent) and women (47 percent). There were substantial differences in gender dominance by industry.

  • Male-dominated industries included construction (87 percent), manufacturing (79 percent), wholesale trade (74 percent), transportation (84 percent) and business services (70 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (82 percent), finance and insurance (79 percent) and educational services (public and private combined, 74 percent).

The recession affected men more than women in Cowlitz County, but the early “recovery” (when the county continued to lose jobs, 2010-13) was worse for women. Looking at the change of employment from third quarter 2007 through fourth quarter 2014, population-adjusted employment for men declined by 6.7 percent and women by 7.7 percent. Younger workers were also disproportionately impacted. Teen employment (under the age of 19) fell by 28 percent and jobs held by 19 to 21 year olds dropped by 9 percent. Meanwhile, the number of jobs held by older workers aged 65 and up increased by 33 percent. While the number of older workers is still small (about 5 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 2014 was $20.77, almost $2 per hour below the state median. After a decade of very little change, the median has increased by about 1 percent each year for the past two years, 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 22 percent. The exception was at the very bottom of the pay scale, where average wages increased by almost 7 percent, from $8.92 to $9.51.

The 2014 average annual wage was approximately $43,588, well below the state ($55,003) and national ($51,361) averages. The average has risen relatively slowly over the past three 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 ($48 per hour and up). From 2010 to 2014, a third of all net new jobs paid below $12 per hour.

Not surprisingly, household income declined sharply in the recession. Unfortunately, household income estimates from the American Community Survey are simply not credible.

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, Cowlitz County per capita personal income was $38,135, well below the state and nation. Per capita income has grown slightly slower than the state and nation for over three decades.



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

According to state estimates, Cowlitz County’s population reached 104,280 in 2015. 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 37,130, with adjacent Kelso the next biggest at 11,950.

Population facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Cowlitz County Washington state
Population 2015 104,280 7,022,200
Population 2000 92,948 5,894,121
Percent change, 2000 to 2015 12.2% 19.1%

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 middle-aged adults (40-59) and older residents.

The county was much less diverse in terms of race and ethnicity than the state. In 2014, 85 percent of Cowlitz’s population was white non-Latino compared with 71 percent at the state level. The county’s Latino population has doubled since the 2000 Census and makes up 8 percent of the population is Latino versus 12 percent at the state level.


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Cowlitz County Washington state
Population by age, 2014
Under 5 years old 5.9% 6.3%
Under 18 years old 22.9% 22.8%
65 years and older 17.5% 14.0%
Females, 2014 50.6% 50.0%
Race/ethnicity, 2014
White alone, not Hispanic or Latino 84.6% 70.8%
Black 0.6% 3.6%
American Indian, Alaskan Native 1.3% 1.3%
Asian, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander 1.7% 8.1%
Hispanic or Latino, any race 8.6% 12.2%

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Compared with the state and nation, Cowlitz County’s adults 25 years and older were more likely to have only a high school diploma or some college education, vs. attaining a bachelor’s degree or higher. In 2014, 15 percent of Cowlitz adults had a bachelor’s or advanced degree, as opposed to 30 percent nationally and 33 percent statewide. 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.