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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 10,778 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 very productive farmland for dairies and berry growing.

Local economy

Prior to European contact, the Native Americans’ economy was based on the abundant natural fisheries in the area. The name Whatcom derives from a Native American Nooksack word meaning ‘noisy water’. Europeans’ first settlements were the fur trappers and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Coal and timber were the natural resources that fueled a boom starting in the 1850s.

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. 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 65 percent of the red raspberries grown in the US.

Like the national economy, Whatcom County’s largest job-providing sector is in private services, with a 62.0 percent share of jobs. Also 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.


Geographic facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Whatcom County Rank in state
Land area, 2013 (square miles) 2,106.86 12
Persons per square mile, 2013 97.7 10



In the lead up to the recession (2003 to 2007), Whatcom County’s annual employment growth rate averaged 3.4 percent. From peak to trough, 6,200 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 2012, Whatcom County has recovered 2,700 jobs.

Whatcom County has some favorable factors that have aided job growth in the past 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 counties south along the I-5 corridor. This makes the county attractive to manufacturing and service providing firms planning to relocate or expand.

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


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 2012 labor force averaged 108,520, with an unemployment rate of 7.3 percent. Within this estimate, 100,550 county residents were counted among the employed and 7,970 were counted among the unemployed.

During the recent period of recession and recovery, the peak unemployment rate in Whatcom County (10.5 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 throughout 2012 and 2013. The unemployment rate in June 2013 was down to 7.5 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. Estimates from the first half of 2013 reveal that the labor market has not yet recovered from the recession, as the labor market took another dip.


Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

Whatcom County averaged 81,500 nonfarm jobs in 2012, up from the 2011 approximation of 80,100. From 2011 to 2012, total employment increased an average of 1.7 percent. Washington state as a whole saw the addition of 42,300 jobs over the same time period; an increase of 1.5 percent.

  • Goods-producers supplied an average of 15,000 jobs in 2012, up 6.0 percent from 2011.
    • Manufacturing employment expanded by 500 jobs over the year, bringing average annual employment to the same level it was at in 2008. The first several months of 2013 show continued growth in this sector. The manufacturing base is diverse. The three largest manufacturing industries in terms of employment are food manufacturing, transportation equipment manufacturing and wood product manufacturing. Petroleum and coal products manufacturing is also a large industry.
    • Construction employment tumbled from 2007 to 2010. As of 2012, the industry is beginning to recover. From 2011 to 2012, construction expanded by 6.8 percent, with the addition of 400 jobs. A recent uptick in construction activity has been pushing employment numbers upward in 2013. As of June, construction employment is 600 jobs higher than June 2012.
  • Private service-providing employment averaged 50,500 in 2012. From 2011 to 2012, service-providers added 700 jobs or 1.5 percent.
    • From 2011 to 2012, most private sector service providers expanded payrolls. Financial activities and professional and business services each grew by 4 percent.
  • Government employment in Whatcom County is concentrated in local government and includes public K-12 education. Government employment dropped by 1.1 percent from 2011 to 2012.

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 2011, the largest group of jobholders by age was among 25 to 34 year olds. This age group held 22.6 percent of jobs across all industries. The next largest share is among persons aged 45 to 54, holding 21.0 percent of jobs.

Males held 49.6 percent of jobs and females held 50.4 percent of jobs in 2011.

  • Male-dominated industries included mining (86.3 percent), construction (85.8 percent), manufacturing (74.4 percent) and wholesale trade (71.3 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (81.7 percent), finance and insurance (71.6 percent) and educational services (67.5 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 2011, Whatcom County averaged 80,400 jobs covered by unemployment insurance, with a payroll of more than $3.2 billion.

The county’s 2012 average annual wage was $40,700.

In 2011, the county’s median hourly wage was $18.60, lower than the state median of $21.59 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 2011, was lower in Whatcom County ($38,098) than in either the state ($43,878) or the U.S. as a whole ($41,560).

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Whatcom County’s 2011 median household income was $51,500, less than Washington state ($56,835) and the U.S. ($50,502).

In 2011, 15.7 percent of Whatcom County’s resident population was living below the official poverty line, higher than the state at 13.9 percent and similar to the U.S. as a whole at 15.9 percent.



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

Whatcom County’s population was 205,800 in 2013. Its total growth from 2003 to 2013 was 16.9 percent, much higher than the 12.3 percent growth rate for Washington state over the same period.

The largest city in Whatcom County is Bellingham (82,310 in 2013, up 16.1 percent in 10 years). The next largest cities are Blaine, Everson, Ferndale and Lynden.

Population facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Whatcom County Washington state
Population 2013 205,800 6,882,400
Population 2003 175,984 6,126,892
Percent change, 2003 to 2013 16.9% 12.3%

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

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

Those under age 18 made up about 20 percent of Whatcom County’s 2012 population compared to nearly 24 percent for the state.

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

Females in 2012 made up 50.5 percent of the population, slightly higher than the state at 50.1 percent.

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, 2012
Under 5 years old 5.5% 6.4%
Under 18 years old 20.3% 23.0%
65 years and older 14.4% 13.2%
Females, 2012 50.5% 50.1%
Race/ethnicity, 2012
White 87.9% 81.6%
Black 1.2% 3.9%
American Indian, Alaskan Native 3.1% 1.8%
Asian, Native Hawaiian, Other Pacific Islander 4.3% 8.4%
Hispanic or Latino, any race 8.4% 11.7%

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

In 2011, 91.6 percent of Whatcom County residents age 25 and older graduated high school compared to 90.1 percent for Washington state residents.

Over the same period, 33.6 percent have bachelor’s degrees or higher levels of education compared to 31.9 percent statewide.