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Whatcom County Profile



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

Overview

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. 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 the 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 63.0 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.

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.

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Geographic facts

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

Whatcom County Rank in state
Land area, 2014 (square miles) 2,106.86 12
Persons per square mile, 2014 98.54 10

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Outlook

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, 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 2013, Whatcom County recovered 4,600 jobs.

Whatcom County has some favorable factors that have aided early job growth and should provide some tailwinds for the near future. The proximity of Whatcom County to Canada and the appreciated Canadian dollar have been a huge draw for Canadian shoppers. Low cost flights to U.S. destinations have also created a draw for Canadian travelers.

Whatcom County generally has lower wage rates for many occupations compared to nearby counties along the I-5 corridor. This arguably makes the county attractive to manufacturing and service-providing firms to relocate or expand in the county.

It will take time to rebuild the fragile economy. For Whatcom County, the outlook points to a slow yet steady recovery.

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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 2013 labor force averaged 103,710, with an unemployment rate of 6.9 percent. Within this estimate, 96,570 county residents were counted among the employed and 7,140 were counted among the unemployed and actively seeking work.

During the recent period of recession and recovery, the peak unemployment rate in Whatcom County (10.6 percent) was reached in February 2010. The average unemployment rate that year was 9.0 percent. The unemployment rate has been falling slowly but consistently since reaching peak levels in 2010. The unemployment rate in July 2014 was down to 5.3 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 early 2012 and gave the impression of a recovering labor market in mid 2012. The labor market contracted again, however, in 2013 and continues to decline.

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Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

Whatcom County averaged 84,400 nonfarm jobs in 2013, up from the 2012 approximation of 82,600. From 2012to 2013, total employment increased an average of 2.2 percent. Washington state as a whole saw the addition of 65,500 jobs over the same time period; an increase of 2.2 percent.

  • Goods-producers contributed an average of 14,800 jobs to the Whatcom County economy in 2013, up 100 jobs or 0.7 percent from 2012.
    • Manufacturing employment expanded by 200 jobs over the year, bringing average annual employment just 200 jobs short of peak levels reached in 2007. The first several months of 2014 reflect a trend of continued slow growth in manufacturing.
    • 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. In 2012, the industry expanded by 200 jobs and in 2013 100 jobs were shed. The first half of 2014 looks encouraging for construction, however. From July 2013 to July 2014, preliminary estimates show the addition of 500 jobs or 8.5 percent.
  • Private service-providing employment averaged 53,200 in 2013. From 2012 to 2013, private service-providers added 1,400 jobs or 2.6 percent. From 2012 to 2013, most private sector service providing industries expanded payrolls. Retail trade, financial activities and leisure and hospitality each grew by over 4 percent.
  • Government employment in Whatcom County is concentrated in local government and includes public K-12 education. A large portion of state government employment is also tied up in education. Total government employment expanded by 300 or 2.2 percent from 2012 to 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, Whatcom County’s labor market had a slightly younger workforce than the state. Over 16 percent of the employed workforce in Whatcom County was between age 14 and 24. Compare to less than 13 percent statewide. This is likely a reflection of the student population attending Western Washington University in Bellingham.

Males held 50.1 percent of jobs and females held 49.9 percent of Whatcom County jobs in 2012.

  • Male-dominated industries included mining (86.9 percent), construction (85.8 percent), manufacturing (74.9percent) and wholesale trade (71.1 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (81.0 percent), finance and insurance (70.9 percent) and educational services (67.3 percent).
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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, Whatcom County averaged 82,312 jobs covered by unemployment insurance, with a payroll of more than $3.4 billion.

The county’s 2013 average annual wage was $41,334.

In 2012, the county’s median hourly wage was $18.86, lower than the state median of $21.64 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 2012 was lower in Whatcom County ($39,117) than either the state ($46,045) or the U.S. as a whole ($43,735).

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Whatcom County’s 2012 median household income was $51,458, less than Washington state ($57,573) and similar to the U.S. ($51,371).

In 2012, 16.6 percent of Whatcom County’s resident population was living below the official poverty line, higher than the state at 13.5 percent and the U.S. as a whole at 15.9 percent.

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Population

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

Whatcom County’s population was estimated to be 207,600 in 2014. Its total growth from 2004 to 2014 was 15.2 percent, much higher than the 12.2 percent growth rate for Washington state over the same period.

The largest city in Whatcom County is Bellingham (82,810 in 2014, up 14.2 percent in 10 years). The next largest cities are Lynden, Ferndale, Blaine and Everson.

Population facts

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

Whatcom County Washington state
Population 2014 207,600 6,968,170
Population 2004 180,245 6,208,527
Percent change, 2004 to 2014 15.2% 12.2%

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.

Those under age 18 made up about 20 percent of Whatcom County’s 2013 population compared to nearly 23 percent for the state.

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

Females in 2013 made up 50.4 percent of the population, slightly higher than the state at 50.0 percent.

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

Demographics

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Whatcom County Washington state
Population by age, 2013
Under 5 years old 5.6% 6.4%
Under 18 years old 20.3% 22.9%
65 years and older 14.9% 13.6%
Females, 2013 50.4% 50.0%
Race/ethnicity, 2013
White 87.6% 81.2%
Black 1.2% 4.0%
American Indian, Alaskan Native 3.2% 1.9%
Asian, Native Hawaiian, Other Pacific Islander 4.4% 8.6%
Hispanic or Latino, any race 8.6% 11.9%

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

In 2012, 89.8 percent of Whatcom County residents age 25 and older graduated high school compared to 90.4 percent for all Washington state residents.

Thirty-one percent of Whatcom County residents have bachelor’s degrees or higher levels of education compared to 31.7 percent statewide.

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