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San Juan County Profile

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


Regional context

San Juan County, located in northwest Washington state includes four large islands: San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw and hundreds of smaller islands, reefs and rocks. About 20 islands are inhabited. San Juan County is the smallest county in Washington by total landmass.

San Juan County is located in the Salish Sea to the west of Skagit and Whatcom counties and east of lower Vancouver Island, Canada. The islands are spectacularly scenic. Consequently, the archipelago is a popular tourism destination. Tourists arrive via ferry, private boat and float plane throughout the year. The county has in turn attracted many retirees. The San Juans are regularly included on lists of America’s most desirable places to live. Today, tourism-related industries and retirement communities form the economic base of the San Juan County economy.

Local economy

The Lummi and Salish peoples have called the San Juan Islands home for thousands of years. Early European settlements were established by the British Hudson Bay Company in the 1850s (although British and Spanish adventurers had explored the islands as early as the 1700s). The San Juan Islands were a disputed territory between Canada and the United States, which led to the short-lived Pig War of 1859 and a thirteen-year process to resolve the international boundary between British-controlled Canada and the United States. The German Kaiser was asked to arbitrate and he decided in favor of the Americans in 1872.

Fishing and farming formed the economic mainstay for most inhabitants until the already well-established tourism economy took off in the 1970s. However, some more colorful parts of the economic history of the San Juan includes smuggling, rum running and trade and manufacturing of other illicit commodities.

Due to a large tourism component in the economy, employment levels are highly seasonal. Using a 10-year average from 2004 through 2014, the following pattern emerges – peak private nonfarm employment occurs each year in July and August, with an average gain of about 1,700 jobs (34 percent) from the January low point of the jobs cycle. As of July 2015, peak employment to date reached 6,410. This is the highest summer employment level since 2013.

Similar to the national economy, San Juan County’s largest job-providing sector is private services, accounting for about 70 percent of all jobs. In 2014 the largest industry in terms of employment was leisure and hospitality. This is consistent with the county’s orientation toward tourism. In 2014, leisure and hospitality hosted an average of 1,400 jobs or 25.8 percent. Other large industries include trade, transportation and utilities—which includes retail trade (16.6 percent), government (15.1 percent), education and health services (11.1 percent) and construction (10.9 percent).


Geographic facts

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

San Juan County Rank in state
Land area, 2010 (square miles) 173.9 39
Persons per square mile, 2015 93.0 11



On an annual average basis, from 2008 to 2010, Washington state and the United States each lost an estimated 5 percent of their respective employment bases. San Juan County lost about 11 percent of total nonfarm jobs from 2008 to 2011. In short, employment losses were deeper and the downfall was longer than for either the nation or the state. The recovery has also been slow and tentative. After reaching an employment low, jobs began to rebound in 2012 and then suffered another short-term setback in 2013, primarily a loss of government jobs. Annual average employment in 2014 was 5,420, 1.7 percent higher than observed in 2013. This is still 9 percent below pre-recession levels and close to the levels of employment observed in 2003 and 2004.


Labor force and unemployment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

The dynamics of the labor force in San Juan County are very seasonal, with peak unemployment rates occurring each year in the winter months and lowest unemployment rates reported each summer during the peak tourism season. The divergence between annual high and low unemployment rates increased during the recession.

During the recent period of recession and recovery, the peak unemployment rate (9.9 percent) was reached in January 2010. The highest average annual unemployment rate was 7.3 percent that same year. By 2014, the average annual unemployment rate fell to 5.2 percent. The unemployment rate in July 2015 (preliminary) was 3.9 percent.

San County’s labor force follows the same seasonal trend described above. In a highly-seasonal tourism-driven economy, the labor force swells during the summer months and contracts during off-peak seasons. The labor force expanded by 1,530 from a winter low of 7,128 in December 2013 to 8,661 in August 2014. To date, the peak in the labor force for 2015 was observed in July (8,438).

The average annual labor force in 2014 was 7,657. Within this estimate, 7,258 people were employed and 399 were actively looking for work.


Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

San County averaged 5,420 jobs in 2014, compared to 5,330 in 2013 – a year-over-year recovery of 1.7 percent. The first seven months of 2015 showed some improvement over the levels observed in 2014, but, given the highly-seasonal nature of the San Juan economy, we will have to wait until after the peak tourism season to accurately assess the progress of San Juan County’s recovery to date. Initial estimates for July 2015 indicate a 1.6 percent improvement in the private sector over July 2014, with the addition of 90 new jobs. The San Juan job market has taken longer than the state or the nation to send out initial green shoots. At this point, the recovery is still fragile and highly dependent on the demand for travel to the San Juan Islands over summer holidays.

  • San Juan County’s goods-producing industries are dominated by natural resources, mining and construction. Nationally and locally, the signature of this recession was an exceptionally hard-hit construction industry. San Juan County was no exception. The county’s goods-producing sector shed an estimated 37 percent of all jobs from 2008 to 2013 and only began to show signs of recovery in 2014. From 2013 to 2014, construction added 30 jobs and manufacturing added 10. This represents a 5.4 percent recovery for construction and a 5.6 percent recovery for manufacturing over the year.
  • Service-providing employment in San Juan County hit its lowest point in 2011, after losing about 7 percent of jobs counted in 2008. From 2013 to 2014, Service sector employment expanded by 40 jobs. Annual gains were observed in information and financial activities (up 40), followed by trade, transportation and utilities (up 30) and professional and business services (up 10). Losses were observed in leisure and hospitality (down 30) and government (down 20).

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, San Juan County’s labor market was relatively older than that of the state. Statewide, 22.6 percent of the workforce was age 55 or older. Compare with San Juan County where 31.3 percent of the workforce was age 55 or older.

Males held 46.3 percent of jobs and females held 53.7 percent of jobs in 2014.

  • Top male-dominated industries in 2014 included construction (84.7 percent), utilities (67.3 percent) and transportation and warehousing (58.9 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries in 2014 included construction (84.7 percent), utilities (67.3 percent) and transportation and warehousing (58.9 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)

  • In 2014, San Juan County averaged 5,444 jobs covered by unemployment insurance, with a total payroll of $176.3 million dollars.
  • The county’s 2014 average annual wage was $32,383.
  • San Juan County’s median hourly wage was $19.95, lower than the state median of $22.09.

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, per capita personal income in San Juan County ($58,718) was well above both state ($47,717) and U.S. ($44,765) averages. It is worth noting that personal income includes all types of income, not limited to earned wages. This is particularly important to recognize in the case of San Juan County, as a large portion of the residents are retired and collect non-wage income.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, San Juan County’s median household income was $53,376, below state ($59,478) and U.S. ($53,046) medians over the period 2009 to 2013.

Over the 2009 to 2013 period, 10.8 percent of the resident population was living below the official poverty line. The statewide average was higher at 13.4 percent, while the national average stood at 15.4 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.



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

The estimated resident population of San Juan County is 16,180 for 2015. Its total growth from 2005 to 2015 was 6.6 percent, lower than the 12.1 percent growth rate observed for the state over the same period.

The only incorporated city in San Juan County is Friday Harbor (population 2,215 in 2015), up 6.1 percent in 10 years.

Population facts

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

San Juan County Washington state
Population 2015 16,180 7,061,410
Population 2005 15,180 6,298,822
Percent change, 2005 to 2015 6.6% 12.1%

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Overall, San Juan County has considerably more individuals age 65 and older (29.4 percent) compared to 14.1 percent statewide. It also has a lower percentage of those under 18 (14.1 percent) compared to 22.7 percent statewide.

In 2014, females made up 51.9 percent of the estimated population.

San Juan County was less diverse than Washington state in terms of race and ethnicity, with smaller proportions of all racial or ethnic minorities compared to the state. About 95 percent of its population was white in 2014.


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

San Juan County Washington state
Population by age, 2014
Under 5 years old 3.0% 6.3%
Under 18 years old 14.1% 22.7%
65 years and older 29.4% 14.1%
Females, 2014 51.9% 50.0%
Race/ethnicity, 2014
White 94.5% 80.7%
Black 0.6% 4.1%
American Indian, Alaskan Native 0.9% 1.9%
Asian, Native Hawaiian, Other Pacific Islander 1.6% 8.9%
Hispanic or Latino, any race 5.9% 12.2%

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Generally speaking, the resident population of San Juan County is well-educated.

  • In 2009-2013, 94.5 percent of San Juan County residents aged 25 and up graduated from high school. This figure compares quite favorably with the state’s 90.0 percent.
  • In San Juan County, 45.1 percent of its resident population aged 25 and up have a bachelor’s degrees or a higher level of educational attainment. This figure compares very favorably with 31.9 percent for the state.