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Thurston County Profile

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


Regional context

Thurston County is located on the southern end of Puget Sound in Western Washington, referred to as the South Sound. It is the seventh smallest county in the state, but the sixth most populous with 349.4 persons per square mile.

Twice in the past five years, Forbes Magazine has ranked Thurston County as one of the top places in the nation to do business. The ranking acknowledges the county’s favorable performance in the areas of cost of living, job growth, recreational and cultural opportunities and educational attainment.

Local economy

Thurston County was carved out of Lewis County in 1852, named after Samuel R. Thurston, the first delegate to Congress from the Oregon Territory, which later became Washington. The county seat is Olympia, the state capital and the largest city in the county. In 1851, Olympia became the port of entry for Puget Sound. A year later, it became the county seat.

Native Americans date back to roughly 3,000 years ago. Nisqually and Squaxon tribes established themselves in this area. In 1833, the first Europeans settled in the area, and in 1845, the first white American settlers arrived.

Lumber and coal and sandstone mining were the dominant sources of industry of 19th century Thurston County, and remained so into the 1920s. In 1896, Leopold Schmidt established a brewery that was a significant industry in Tumwater. It operated until Miller closed it in 2003.

State government began to increase its share when the state capitol was completed in 1927. By the 1950s, state government surpassed lumber. Logging mills closed in the 1960s. Thurston County grew rapidly over the decades, fueled by employment in state government and trade. Tribal casinos also took off during this time.

The local economy continues to be driven by government employment as 35 percent of all nonfarm employment can be attributed to state and local government jobs. During the recession, the loss of tax revenues earlier driven by a robust construction sector began to eat into state revenues. The result has been a period of budget constraints and cuts.

Moving forward, much of the budget questions remain unsolved as the state, local municipalities and school districts continue to look for ways to continue doing, at the very least, the same with less.State revenues will remain suppressed in hopes that other sectors of the economy can help fuel the county’s next growth spurt.


Geographic facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Thurston County Rank in state
Land area, 2010 (square miles) 721.96 32
Persons per square mile, 2010 349.4 6



The coming year looks to show continuing promise as unemployment rates continue to fall and nonfarm payrolls expand. New tax dollars from the legalization of cannabis have yet to be realized but a new revenue stream promises to help the state and county.

Retail sales have been bumpy around the county showing a slight lack of confidence in the economy and the job market in particular. Several cities continue to fight budget issues that crop up when facing a growing population.

Labor force and unemployment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

The June 2014 preliminary unemployment rate declined to 5.2 percent, down from 6.2 in May. The June 2013 unemployment rate was 7.2 percent.  The unemployment rate in the county promises to continue this trend, since March 2014 the unemployment rate has remained below 7 percent, with the August preliminary posting a 5.5% rate.

In June 2014 there were 6,450 county residents unemployed as 117,410 received paychecks. That compares to 8,950 unemployed in June 2013 with 124,440 at work. The June 2014 statewide unemployment rate was 5.4 percent. Over the year the labor force has been fairly steady proving that there is confidence in the local labor market.


Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

After 27 straight months of nonfarm employment totaling above 100,000 jobs, the county went 34 straight months below that figure, until the May 2012 total again reached 100,000. It has remained above 100,000 through June 2014. Look for that trend to continue in 2014.

Goods-producing employment totaled 7,200 in June 2014, down 200 from June 2013. The construction sector has been mostly absent during this recovery as employment numbers in that area save for seasonal gains have remained fairly flat. Service- providing jobs accounted for 96,400 paychecks in June 2014, up 600 from the June 2013 total. The service sector has been buoyed by strong growth in professional and business services, leisure and hospitality and trade.

Government jobs are the bread and butter of the county economy accounting for more than a third of all nonfarm employment. The sector continues to grow but at a much slower pace than the past.

The recession caught up to the government sector leading to the loss of 500 jobs between June 2011 and June 2012. Most of the losses were in state government. By June 2014, preliminary estimates showed 36,200 government employees, up from 35,900 a year earlier.

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, the two largest employed age categories were those 45 to 54 years old, with 23.3 percent of the jobs and those 55 and older with 23.9 percent of the jobs.

Men held 44.9 percent of the jobs in the county and women held 55.1 percent of jobs in 2012.

  • Male-dominated industries included mining (88.7 percent), construction (83.8 percent) and manufacturing (75.6 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (79.9 percent) and finance and insurance (70.1 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, there were 99,919 covered employment jobs in Thurston County. The total payroll for 2013 was over $4.4 billion dollars.

In 2013, average annual wage was $44,242 compared to the state average of $53,029.

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.

Per capita income in Thurston County in 2012 was $43,977 compared to the state at $46,045 and the nation at $43,735.

Median household income over the period 2008 to 2012 was $58,239, higher than that of the state ($57,573), according to the U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts.

The percent of the county’s population below the official poverty rate in 2012 was 12.6 percent compared to the state’s rate of 13.5 percent and the nation’s at 15.9 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts.



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

Thurston County’s population in 2013 was 262,388. The growth rate from 2010 to 2013 in Thurston County was faster at 4.0 percent than that of the state at 3.7 percent.

The largest city in the county is Olympia with 48,338 inhabitants, followed by Lacey (44,919) and Tumwater (18,511).

Population facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Thurston County Washington state
Population 2013 262,388 6,971,406
Population 2010 252,264 6,724,540
Percent change, 2010 to 2013 4.0% 3.7%

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Thurston County had an older population than the state in 2013. Thurston County’s population of those aged 65 and older was 14.7 percent compared to the state’s 13.6 percent.

Those under 18 years old were 22.3 percent of the county population, slightly less than that of the state’s 22.9 percent. Those under five years old made up 6.1 percent of Thurston County’s population compared to the state’s 6.4 percent.

Females made up 51.0 percent of Thurston County’s population, slightly more than that of the state (50.0 percent).

Thurston County showed somewhat less diversity in 2013 than the state in racial/ethnic categories, with whites making up 83.4 percent of its population compared to 81.2 percent of the state’s population. There was 5.1 percent of the county’s population reporting two or more races in 2013 compared to 4.4 percent at the state level. The county’s population had slightly more native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders (0.9 percent) than the state (0.7 percent).


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Thurston County Washington state
Population by age, 2013
Under 5 years old 6.1% 6.4%
Under 18 years old 22.3% 23.5%
65 years and older 14.7% 12.3%
Females, 2013 51.0% 50.2%
Race/ethnicity, 2013
White 83.4% 81.2%
Black 3.3% 4.0%
American Indian, Alaskan Native 1.7% 1.9%
Asian, Native Hawaiian, Other Pacific Islander 6.4% 8.6%
Hispanic or Latino, any race 8.1% 11.9%

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Most Thurston County residents age 25 and older (92.9 percent) were high school graduates, which compares very favorably with 90.0 percent of Washington state’s residents and 85.7 percent of U.S. residents over the period 2008 to 2012.

Those with a bachelor’s degree or higher made up 32.0 percent of Thurston County residents age 25 and older compared to 31.6 percent of state residents and 28.5 percent of U.S. residents.