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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 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, payroll job levels are highly seasonal. Using a 10-year average from 2003 through 2013, the following pattern emerges – peak private nonfarm employment occurs each year in July and August, with an average gain of about 1,700 jobs (35 percent) from the January low point of the jobs cycle. In 2013, the seasonal gap widened to a 1,960 or 42 percent difference from January to August.

Similar to the national economy, San Juan County’s largest job-providing sector is private services, accounting for a 69.6 percent share of all jobs. In 2013 San Juan County’s largest industries in terms of covered employment were leisure and hospitality (25.9 percent), government (15.2 percent), trade transportation and utilities (16.5 percent), construction (11.8 percent) and education and health services (11.2 percent).


Geographic facts

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

San Juan County Rank in state
Land area, 2014 (square miles) 173.92 39
Persons per square mile, 2014 92.58 11



From peak-to-trough, Washington state and the United States each lost an estimated 5 percent of their employment base. San Juan County lost about 11 percent of all jobs during the recession and did not reach the lowest levels of employment until 2011, after most other areas had begun to rebound. Annual average employment estimates for 2012 and 2013 suggest that San Juan County has entered into a period of economic recovery. From 2012 to 2013, total average employment rose by 110 or 2 percent.


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 seasonally-sensitive, with peak unemployment rates occurring each year in the winter and lowest unemployment rates reported each summer during the peak tourism season. The divergence between annual high and low unemployment rates has increased since the start of the recession.

During the recent period of recession and recovery, the peak unemployment rate (10.0 percent) was reached in January 2011. The highest average annual unemployment rate was 7.2 percent in 2010. By 2013, the average annual unemployment rate fell to 5.9 percent. The unemployment rate in July 2014 (preliminary) was 3.3 percent.

San Juan 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 in 2013 was 7,690. Within this estimate, 7,240 people were employed and 450 were actively looking for work.


Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

San Juan County averaged 5,520 jobs in 2013, compared to 5,410 in 2012, a year-over-year recovery of 2.0 percent. The first several months of 2014 do not look optimistic for job year-over-year job creation, 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 2014 indicate equivalent employment levels to those seen 12 months prior. 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 28 percent of all jobs from 2008 to 2011. Although the smaller manufacturing component seems to have reached its low point in 2010, natural resources, mining and construction continued to shed jobs into 2012.
  • Service-providing employment in San Juan County hit its lowest point in 2011, after losing about 7 percent of jobs counted in 2008. From 2012 to 2013, service sector employment expanded by 100 jobs. The largest gains were observed in education and health services, which added 180 jobs and leisure and hospitality which added 80. The government sector shed 160 jobs in 2013.

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, San Juan County’s labor market was slightly older than that of the state. Statewide, 20.9 percent of the workforce was age 55 or older. Compare with San Juan County where 29.2 percent of the workforce was age 55 or older.

Males held 45.6 percent of jobs and females held 54.4 percent of jobs in 2012.

  • Top male-dominated industries in 2012 included construction (84.8 percent), utilities (65.1 percent) and transportation and warehousing (62.6 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (83.5 percent), finance and insurance (81.8 percent) and educational services (72.4 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 2013, San Juan County averaged 5,347 jobs covered by unemployment insurance, with a total payroll of $170.2 million.
  • The county’s 2013 average annual wage was $31,826.
  • San Juan County’s median hourly wage in 2012 was $19.89, lower than the state median of $21.64.

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, the $53,389 per capita personal income in San Juan County was well above both state ($46,045) and U.S. ($43,735) averages. This measure of income places San Juan County as the second highest in the state, just trailing King County.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, San Juan County’s median household income was $52,712, below state ($59,374) and U.S. ($53,046) medians over the period 2008 to 2012.

Over the 2008 to 2012 period, 11.2 percent of the resident population was living below the official poverty line. The statewide average was higher at 12.9 percent, while the national average stood at 16.1 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.



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

The resident population of San Juan County was estimated to be 16,100 in 2014. Its total growth from 2004 to 2014 was 7.8 percent, lower than the 12.2 percent for the state over the same period.

The only incorporated city in San Juan County is Friday Harbor (population 2,190) in 2014, up 8.8 percent in 10 years.

Population facts

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

San Juan County Washington state
Population 2014 16,100 6,968,170
Population 2004 14,935 6,208,527
Percent change, 2004 to 2014 7.8% 12.2%

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Overall, San Juan County has considerably more individuals age 65 and older than the state (27.8 percent versus 13.6 percent). It had a lower percentage of those under 18 than the state in 2013 (14.3 percent versus 22.9 percent).

Females in the 2013 county population made up 51.7 percent of the estimated count.

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 2013.


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

San Juan County Washington state
Population by age, 2013
Under 5 years old 3.0% 6.4%
Under 18 years old 14.3% 22.9%
65 years and older 27.8% 13.6%
Females, 2013 51.7% 50.0%
Race/ethnicity, 2013
White 94.7% 81.2%
Black 0.6% 4.0%
American Indian, Alaskan Native 0.8% 1.9%
Asian, Native Hawaiian, Other Pacific Islander 1.4% 8.6%
Hispanic or Latino, any race 5.8% 11.9%

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

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

  • In 2008-2012, 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, 44.8 percent of its resident population aged 25 and up have a bachelor’s degrees or higher level of formal educational attainment. This figure compares very favorably with 31.6 percent for the state.