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Whatcom County Profile

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


Regional context

Whatcom County is bordered to its north by British Columbia, Canada, Skagit County to its south and Okanagan County to its east. The Salish Sea lies to the west and the Cascade Mountains rise to the east. Whatcom County ranges in elevation from sea level to a high point at 10,781 feet at the active volcano Mount Baker, also known as Kulshan. In geological times past, the Fraser River in the lower mainland of British Columbia had one arm extending down to Bellingham Bay, creating the flat geography of a delta plain in that area that makes for productive farmland for dairies and berry growing.

Local economy

For thousands of years, Whatcom County has been home to people of the Lummi, Nooksack, Samish and Semiahmoo tribal groups. Fur trappers and traders from the Hudson’s Bay Company were the first non-native residents of the county. In the 1850s, Whatcom County experienced an economic and population boom propelled initially by coal mining, timber and agriculture.

Northwest Normal School, the predecessor to present day's Western Washington University (WWU) was established in Lynden in 1886. The northwest's first high school was built in Whatcom County in 1890. This boom came to a halt in 1893 due to the national recession and the population in the Bellingham dropped to fewer than 50 individuals.

The 20th century brought in more prosperous times with increasing national demand for the abundant timber and salmon. Fish canning operations were a mainstay of the Whatcom County economy. The towns of Whatcom, Sehome, Bellingham and Fairhaven joined together to form the county seat of Bellingham. Whatcom County is now a regional hub for northwest Washington. Bellingham is the biggest city (both by population and area) in the region.

Agriculture is a steadying influence in the northern parts of the county. Today, Whatcom County produces the most raspberries of any county in the United States.

Like the national economy, Whatcom County’s largest job-providing sector is in private services, with a 62.8 percent share of jobs. Following national trends and due to the recent recession, goods-producing jobs fell to a greater extent than private services. The county has some heavy industry at Cherry Point in the northwest corner of the county with crude oil refineries and an aluminum smelter. There is some niche manufacturing and a large variety of other small businesses that create a well-rounded economy.

Whatcom County is home to Western Washington University as well as two community and technical colleges. The university and colleges are in their own right major employers and Bellingham consistently draws a large student population which contributes to the local service economy.

The proximity to the Canadian border is a strong influence on the economy. When the Canadian dollar is strong, it creates demand for Canadian shoppers seeking retail bargains and real estate in Whatcom County.


Geographic facts

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

Whatcom County Rank in state
Land area, 2010 (square miles) 2,106.9 12
Persons per square mile, 2015 99.6 10



In the lead up to the recession (2003 to 2007), Whatcom County’s annual employment growth rate averaged 3.3 percent. From peak to trough (2008 to 2010), 5,900 jobs (about 7 percent) were lost. Whatcom County’s employment situation reached its low point in 2010—on track with much of Washington state. From 2010 to 2014, Whatcom County recovered 5,400 jobs.

Whatcom County has some favorable factors that aided early job recovery. In particular, the proximity of Whatcom County to Canada and the appreciated Canadian dollar during the jobs recession and early recovery created a draw for Canadian shoppers. Low cost flights to U.S. destinations has also created a draw for Canadian travelers. As the recovery has progressed, the value of the Canadian dollar relative to the U.S. dollar has slid, reducing the draw of cross-border retail.

Whatcom County generally has lower wage rates for many occupations compared to nearby counties along the I-5 corridor. This is partially due to the presence of a large student population and arguably makes the county attractive to manufacturing and service-providing firms to relocate or expand in the county.

As the recovery has matured, most industries have gotten on board. Average annual employment in 2014 was only 500 jobs short of the pre-recession peak and most industries joined the recovery since 2012. From 2013 to 2014, all major industries reported year-to-year growth.


Labor force and unemployment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

Whatcom County’s 2014 resident civilian labor force averaged 101,927, with an unemployment rate of 6.7 percent. Within this estimate, 95,092 county residents were counted among the employed and 6,835 were counted among the unemployed (i.e. active job seekers).

During the recent period of recession and recovery, the peak unemployment rate in Whatcom County (11.1 percent) was observed in February 2010. The average unemployment rate that year was 9.5 percent. The unemployment rate has been falling slowly but consistently since then. The unemployment rate in July 2015 was 6.0 percent.

The size of the resident labor force in Whatcom County climbed steadily in the lead up to the recession. It then dipped from 2009 to 2011 and has been relatively flat since then.


Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

Whatcom County averaged 85,300 nonfarm jobs in 2014, up from the 2013 approximation of 84,200. From 2013 to 2014, total employment increased an average of 1.3 percent. Washington state as a whole saw the addition of 77,600 jobs over the same time period, an increase of 2.6 percent.

  • Goods-producers contributed an average of 15,000 jobs to the Whatcom County economy in 2014, up 200 jobs or 1.3 percent from 2013.
    • Manufacturing employment held steady over the year, bringing average annual employment just 200 jobs short of pre-recession peak levels reached in 2007.
    • Whatcom County’s manufacturing base is diverse. The three largest manufacturing industries in terms of employment are food manufacturing, wood product manufacturing and transportation equipment manufacturing. Petroleum and coal products manufacturing is also a large industry.
    • Construction employment tumbled from 2007 to 2010. Construction employment has more-or-less remained flat from 2010 to 2014, fluctuating by only about 200 jobs in any given year. The early indications from 2015 are encouraging. Year-over-year estimates in July 2015 show an increase of 900 construction jobs.
  • Private service-providing employment averaged 53,600 in 2014. From 2013 to 2014, private service-providers added 500 jobs or 1.0 percent. From 2013 to 2014, all private sector service providing industries that are broken out in the nonfarm employment report (retail trade, financial activities, professional and business services and leisure and hospitality) expanded payrolls.
  • Government employment in Whatcom County is concentrated in local and state government and includes public K-12 and higher education. Total government employment expanded by 300 or 2.0 percent from 2013 to 2014.

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, Whatcom County’s labor market had a slightly younger workforce than the state. Nearly 15 percent of the employed workforce in Whatcom County was between age 14 and 24. Compare to just over 11 percent statewide. This is a reflection of the high student population in Bellingham.

Employment was split evenly between men and women in 2014.

  • Male-dominated industries included mining (90.4 percent), construction (84.5 percent), manufacturing (73.7 percent) and wholesale trade (71.6 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (79.8 percent), finance and insurance (70.1 percent) and educational services (67.4 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 2014, Whatcom County averaged 83,689 jobs covered by unemployment insurance, with a payroll of more than $3.4 billion dollars.

The county’s 2014 average annual wage was $41,027.

In 2013, the county’s median hourly wage was $19.06, lower than the state median of $22.09 per hour.

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.

Average per capita personal income in 2013 was lower in Whatcom County ($41,076) than either the state ($47,717) or the U.S. as a whole ($44,765), according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Whatcom County’s 2013 median household income was $50,186, less than Washington state ($58,405) and the U.S. ($52,250).

In 2013, 17.0 percent of Whatcom County’s resident population was living below the official poverty line, higher than the state at 14.1 percent and the U.S. as a whole at 15.8 percent.



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

Whatcom County’s estimated population is 209,790 for 2015. Its total growth from 2005 to 2015 was 13.4 percent, higher than the 12.1 percent growth rate for Washington state over the same period.

The largest city in Whatcom County is Bellingham (83,580 in 2015, up 13.0 percent in 10 years). The next largest cities are Lynden, Ferndale, Blaine and Everson.

Population facts

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

Whatcom County Washington state
Population 2015 209,790 7,061,410
Population 2005 184,965 6,298,822
Percent change, 2005 to 2015 13.4% 12.1%

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

The proportion of very young children is less in Whatcom County than in the state.

Due to the presence of Western Washington University, the population of residents between the ages of 15 and 24 make up 17.5 percent of the total population in Whatcom County.

There were proportionately more residents 65 and older in Whatcom County than in the state.

Females made up 50.4 percent of the population, slightly higher than the state at 50.0 percent in 2014.

Whatcom County was less ethnically diverse than Washington state with the exception of a larger percentage of American Indian and Alaska Native residents.


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Whatcom County Washington state
Population by age, 2014
Under 5 years old 5.5% 6.3%
Under 18 years old 20.2% 22.7%
65 years and older 15.4% 14.1%
Females, 2014 50.4% 50.0%
Race/ethnicity, 2014
White 87.3% 80.7%
Black 1.2% 4.1%
American Indian, Alaskan Native 3.2% 1.9%
Asian, Native Hawaiian, Other Pacific Islander 4.6% 8.9%
Hispanic or Latino, any race 8.9% 12.2%

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

In the period 2010 - 2014, 91.0 percent of Whatcom County residents age 25 and older graduated high school compared to 90.2 percent for all Washington state residents.

Thirty-two point four percent of Whatcom County residents have bachelor’s degrees or higher levels of education, matching the statewide number.