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Island County Profile

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


Regional context

Island County is situated in the Salish Sea in Northwest Washington. As its name suggests, it is made up of several islands. The two largest are Whidbey and Camano. Island County is the second smallest county in Washington by landmass, just larger than neighboring San Juan County. Island County is bounded to the north by Deception Pass and by Puget Sound to the south. Skagit Bay and Saratoga Passage are located to the east and Admiralty Inlet and the Strait of Juan de Fuca are west of Island County. Skagit and Snohomish Counties lie to the east of Island County and the Olympic Peninsula lies across the water to the west.

The largest employer is the U.S. Naval Air Station in Oak Harbor (Naval Air Station Whidbey Island or NASWI). Oak Harbor is the largest city in the county with a population of 22,000 in 2015.

Local economy

For thousands of years, Island County was inhabited by several groups of Coast Salish Indians. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, the population was decimated by disease transmitted through contact with European and American explorers.

Settlement by non-indigenous people began in the 1850s. Early industries included logging, fishing and farming, as well as some related manufacturing industries.

In 1941, the U.S. Navy started construction on an airbase (NASWI), which transformed Oak Harbor into a booming community due to the creation of construction jobs and influx of Navy personnel. NASWI remains a strong economic stabilizing force in Whidbey Island. NASWI has also brought many highly skilled workers to Whidbey Island. There is not a strong economic base to provide sufficient employment for the spouses and dependents of those workers; consequently, commuting to nearby counties provides a relief valve for residents seeking jobs.

Nonfarm and covered employment estimates do not include military employment figures. However, given that Island County’s largest employer is the military, the success of other industries is highly dependent on the employment situation at the naval air base.

Total nonfarm employment averaged 15,520 in 2014. Nearly 29 percent of all jobs in Island County were government jobs—especially local government. Typically, the largest volume of local government jobs is related to K-12 education. Private education and health services made up nearly 15 percent of total nonfarm employment and leisure and hospitality made up slightly more than 14 percent. Goods producing industries, which are predominantly represented by construction and manufacturing, made up 9 percent of the non-military jobs in Island County.


Geographic facts

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

Island County Rank in state
Land area, 2015 (square miles) 208.5 38
Persons per square mile, 2015 386.7 5



Island County’s employment situation began to slow down in 2007, slightly faster than either Washington state or the U.S. as a whole. Every year from 2008 to 2010, Island County shed proportionally more jobs than either the state or the nation and did not begin to see employment gains until 2012, after the state and the nation had already begun to improve. In 2013, Island County experienced a second round of job losses and finally began to emerge from sustained net job losses in 2014. From 2007 to 2013, Island County lost 1,550 nonfarm jobs or about 9 percent.  For comparison, Washington state and the U.S. each lost an estimated 5 percent of their employment base to the recession from 2008-2010. Like many other places throughout the state and the nation, the deepest job losses came from the construction industry.

Annual average employment estimates for 2014 suggest that the recovery has finally taken hold in Island County, despite a lengthy delay and the setback in 2013. From 2013 to 2014, 1.8 percent of all nonfarm jobs (280) were recovered. Employment gains were made in most industry sectors. Leisure and hospitality and private education and health services created the largest number of new jobs in 2014 (120 and 90 respectively).

As of July 2015, employment growth appears to have taken root. From July 2014 to July 2015, total nonfarm employment expanded by 2.3 percent (360 new jobs), however growth is not yet widespread through the local industry base. The largest gains were made in government, specifically in state and local education services and construction. Several sectors are still experiencing employment losses into 2015.

Labor force and unemployment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

In 2014, Island County’s civilian labor force averaged 31,692. Of that, 29,498 people were employed and 2,193 were estimated to be actively seeking employment. The average unemployment rate in 2014 was 6.9 percent.

During this drawn-out period of recession and recovery, the peak unemployment rate in Island County (10.8 percent) was observed in January and February 2010. The average unemployment rate that year was 9.3 percent. The unemployment rate has been falling slowly but consistently since then. The preliminary reported unemployment rate for July 2015 was 6.1 percent. Since the early 2000s, Island County’s unemployment rate has tracked closely with that of the state.

Island County’s total civilian labor force increased almost every year from 2001 to 2010. Since 2010, the average annual labor force has declined every year.


Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

Although the recession technically ended in June 2009, the employment situation in Island County did not begin to turn around until well into the recovery period. The lowest employment levels were reached in 2013 – three years after the state began to recover jobs. Some industries that were particularly hard hit include construction and retail trade (which lost 980 and 500 jobs respectively). Industries that have grown the most jobs over the past year include leisure and hospitality (up 120), education and health services (up 90) and construction (up 70).

Island County averaged 15,520 nonfarm (and non-military) jobs in 2014. This represents an introduction of 280 new jobs or a 1.8 percent increase in total employment over 2013. Washington state as a whole saw the addition of 77,600 jobs over the same time period, an increase of 2.6 percent.

  • Goods-producing industries supported an average of 1,390 jobs in 2014. This is 90 more jobs than had been counted in 2013, an increase of 6.9 percent over the year.
    • Island County goods-producing industries generally fall within two industries: construction and manufacturing. At its peak before the recession, the construction industry in Island County employed more than twice the number of jobs found in manufacturing (1,630 and 660 respectively in 2007). As of 2014, the gap has narrowed to a difference of 50 jobs (720 and 670 respectively in 2014). The two industries were buffeted around in this recession very differently. From 2007 to 2013, the construction industry declined by 980 or 60 percent. Manufacturing employment fell by 50 early in the recession and began to recover as early as 2010. In terms of total jobs, by 2014 manufacturing could be considered fully-recovered, while construction continues to struggle.
  • Service-providing industries supported an average of 14,140 jobs in 2014, up from 13,940 in 2013.
    • On an annual basis, the service sector lost 560 jobs or 3.9 percent from 2007 to 2013. Over the past year, growth has been observed in most industries. Within the service sector, the highest growth was attributable to hiring in leisure and hospitality (120 new jobs), education and health services (90 jobs) and trade, transportation and utilities (90 jobs). Two industries that continue to shed jobs are professional and business services (down 90) and information and financial activities (down 60).
    • Non-military employment in the government sector averaged 4,490 jobs in 2014. Twenty jobs were added over the past year, with increases coming from state and local education services (i.e. K-12 and state-funded post-secondary education).

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, Island County’s labor market was generally older than that of the state. Statewide, 22.6 percent of the workforce was age 55 or older. Compare with Island County where 27.7 percent of the workforce was age 55 or older.

In 2014, Females held 57.2 percent of the civilian jobs in Island County. Statewide, females made up 49.1 percent of the civilian workforce. This is likely a reflection of military spouses participating in the civilian labor force.

  • The three most male-dominated industries in Island County included construction (83.2 percent), transportation and warehousing (78.0 percent), mining (75.9 percent) and information (66.0 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included management of companies and enterprises (81.5 percent), health care and social assistance (80.1 percent) finance and insurance (74.6 percent) and educational services (70.9 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 (adjusted for inflation) for jobs in Island County in 2013 was $18.22 compared to the $22.09 state median wage.

The 2014 average annual wage was $35,334, well below state and the state less King County averages, which were $55,003 and $44,322 respectively.

In 2013, 11.3 percent of Island County’s population was living below the poverty level, lower than the state at 14.1 percent and the nation at 15.8 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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 2013, Island County per capita personal income was $43,306, below the state and nation, as it has been since at least 1969. For comparison, Washington per capita income was $47,717 and the national per capita income was $44,765.



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

Island County’s resident population estimate is 80,600 for 2015. Its total growth from 2005 to 2015 was 6.1 percent, lower than the 12.1 percent growth observed for the state over the same period. Oak Harbor is the largest city in Island County, with a population of 22,000.

Population facts

(Source: U.S. U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Washington Office of Financial Management)

Island County Washington state
Population 2015 80,600 7,061,410
Population 2005 75,951 6,298,822
Percent change, 2005 to 2015 5.8% 12.1%

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

When compared with the state, Island County’s had a larger proportion of residents age 65 and older, 22.5 percent compared to 14.1 percent statewide.

Females made up 50.1 percent of Island County’s population, slightly above that of the state (50.0 percent).

Island County is less diverse than Washington state as a whole in terms of race and ethnicity. In 2014, 86.3 percent of the Island County population was white compared with 80.7 percent at the state level. Just 7.1 percent of Island County’s population identifies as Hispanic or Latino versus 12.2 percent of Washington state’s population.


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Island County Washington state
Population by age, 2014
Under 5 years old 5.5% 6.3%
Under 18 years old 18.9% 22.7%
65 years and older 22.5% 14.1%
Females, 2014 50.1% 50.0%
Race/ethnicity, 2014
White 86.3% 80.7%
Black 2.9% 4.1%
American Indian, Alaskan Native 1.1% 1.9%
Asian, Native Hawaiian, Other Pacific Islander 5.3% 8.9%
Hispanic or Latino, any race 7.1% 12.2%

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Of the Island County residents age 25 and up, 94.9 percent graduated from high school, which compares favorably with 90.2 percent of Washington state residents and 86.3 percent of U.S. residents in the period 2010 - 2014.

Those with a bachelor’s degree or higher made up 31.7 percent of Island County adults while 32.3 percent at the state level and 29.3 nationally have that much education.