Pierce County profile

Washington state map with Pierce county highlightedby Jim Vleming, regional labor economist - updated October 2017

Overview | Geographic facts | Outlook | Labor force and unemployment | Industry employment | Wages and income | Population | Useful links | PDF Profile copy


Regional context

Pierce County is a coastal area in the northwest part of the state that includes Puget Sound, the Puget Sound lowlands and the surrounding region west of the Cascade Range and east of the Olympic Mountains. Formed out of Thurston County in 1852 by the legislature of the Oregon Territory, it was named for U.S. President Franklin Pierce. The county has a total area of roughly 1,800 square miles, of which 1,670 square miles is land and 130 square miles is water. The highest natural point in Washington, Mount Rainier at 14,410 feet, is located in Pierce County.

Local economy

The founding of Pierce County encouraged a slow but steady stream of new settlements. Tacoma was founded in 1872. When the Northern Pacific Railroad announced in 1873 that its northwest terminus would locate in Tacoma, the city and surrounding county grew into a regional leader.

The lumber industry, at the time dominated by the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Co., helped the area to develop further. World War I brought an industrial boom as the region's lumber was used in local shipyards. The U.S. Army built Camp Lewis, which would later grow into Fort Lewis, on 70,000 acres of land on the Nisqually plain purchased by Tacoma voters. In 1918, the voters created the Port of Tacoma, which began improving industrial waterways and facilities.

In the years following World War II, economic significance within the region began shifting when the Boeing Company established Seattle as a center for aircraft manufacturing. Microsoft's 1979 move from Albuquerque, New Mexico to nearby Bellevue helped to develop Seattle as a technology center in the 1980s. A stream of new software, biotechnology and Internet companies into the area led to an economic revival. This development prompted the Tacoma-Pierce area to begin transitioning out of its wood and paper products manufacturing.

Many Pierce County residents, looking to replace the manufacturing wages lost during the industrial transition, began commuting to jobs in King County. Today, more than 25 percent of the workforce in Pierce County travels to jobs in King County. The developing economy in King County, which exerted upward pressure on land values and housing costs, encouraged workers who might normally have lived in King County to reside in Pierce and other neighboring counties.

Pierce County has continued to diversify out of a manufacturing and resource-based economy into a more service-oriented one. Forward momentum dissipated with the 2001 recession, but was regained with the economic recovery in 2003. The economy slowed again in 2007 when falling housing prices curtailed construction and employment losses occurred in every local industry, with the exception of healthcare. Since then Pierce County has recovered jobs lost during the Great Recession. Nonfarm payroll employment is ahead of where the county was in 2015 according to the most recent figures.

Pierce County continues to maintain its economic identity, based upon traditional strengths and as a regional component of the Puget Sound economy. It serves as a healthcare provider for South Puget Sound, represented by MultiCare Health System, DaVita and the Franciscan Health System. Aerospace manufacturing plays a growing role with the Boeing Company. Facilities within the county produce vertical tail fins for several of the company’s newer aircraft models as well as a number of related aircraft parts. Toray Composites is another firm related to the industry.

The Port of Tacoma and Joint Base Lewis-McCord (JBLM) comprise two traditional economic components of the local economy. Investments made in improving the Port’s facilities together with its expanding role in the era of economic globalization have allowed it to handle growing volumes of shipments. The Port is a major center for bulk and heavy-lift cargoes, as well as automobiles and medium-duty trucks. The ports of Tacoma and Seattle have also formed the Northwest Seaport Alliance, the third largest container gateway in North America. In 2016, the Alliance handled more than 3.6 million 20 foot equivalent units, an increase of 2.0 percent from 2015 volumes. The overall economic impact of this marine cargo operation was estimated to be $4.3 billion in 2013, the most recent study year.

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Geographic facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Pierce County Rank in state
 Land area, 2010 (square miles) 1,669.5  23 
 Persons per square mile, 2010 476.3

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The county can now look in the rear view mirror at the recession and look forward as nonfarm employment continues to expand and the unemployment rate shrinks. The county pre-recession non farm employment high was 285,400 jobs in 2007. Through August 2017, preliminary data is averaging 313,500. The unemployment rate, which averaged 10.1 percent through August 2011, is averaging nearly half of that at 5.4 percent in 2017.

Pierce County will continue to benefit from its economic ties to King County. As an example Amazon has become a major player in the Pierce landscape by adding warehouse fulfillment centers to the area. While Amazon orders soar shipping giant UPS gets more business therefore needing more employees and space. The new UPS facility in Tacoma promises to add between 800 to 1,200 jobs and they are gearing up now for the holidays. With the King county housing market continuing to surge, Pierce has benefited with more affordable housing options for King county workers. Although Pierce county real estate prices are climbing as well. Overall the business climate is one of positive growth, as the city of Tacoma rolls out initiatives like Tacoma 2025 that looks to improve and expand all areas of the local economy, and Tacoma Works, which has its focus on bolstering employment opportunities for local construction workers.

Like all counties throughout the state, government is an important part of the local economy and is a significant employer. The year 2017 has shown the local economy growing at better rate than most areas in the state. The coming year promises to be more of the same as construction begins or wraps up on several new projects with new hotels and leisure and hospitality opportunities set to open and/or expand.

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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.

The size of the Pierce County labor force in 2016 was 405,717, up over 13,000 from 2015. In 2017, through August that number is up around 8,500 from 2016.

The unemployment rate continues to move in the right direction, far, far away from the 10.4 of 2010. The current August 2017 preliminary rate of 5% is the lowest August rate since 1999 when the county produced a 4.6% figure.

While the labor force continues to expand, the job market looks to be keeping up and unemployment again should be below 2016 levels.

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Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

Pierce County total nonfarm employment bottomed out from the effects of the recession in 2010 and has continued expanding through 2017. Between August preliminary 2017 and 2016 nonfarm payrolls grew by 11,400 jobs. There was strong growth in most sectors of the local economy.

  • Pierce County had 306,500 nonfarm jobs on average in 2016, making it the state’s second largest labor market behind King County. So far in 2017 the county is averaging over 313,000 nonfarm jobs.
  • Most of the jobs in Pierce County are private sector jobs, which made up the majority of all total nonfarm jobs in 2017.
  • Trade, transportation and utilities, government and educational health services are the peak industries in the county.

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 2016, the largest jobholder age group in Pierce County was the 55 and older age category, making up 22.5 percent of jobs across all industries. The next largest share is among persons aged 45 to 54 with 21.3 percent of jobs.

Males held 48.3 percent of jobs and females held 51.7 percent of jobs in 2016.

  • Male-dominated industries included mining (85.6 percent), construction (81.7 percent) and manufacturing (75.9 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (78.4 percent), educational services (72.1 percent) and finance and insurance (69.3 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  2016, there were 295,350 jobs in Pierce County covered by unemployment insurance, with a total payroll of more than $14.1 billion.

The average annual wage in 2016 was $47,850, below the state’s average annual wage of $59,073.

The median hourly wage in 2016 was $21.97, which surpasses the state’s median hourly wage of $20.68 when King County is excluded, but falls below the state’s median hourly wage of $23.91 when King County is included.

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 2015, the per capita personal income was $44,600, less than the state ($51,898) and the nation ($48,112). It ranks 12th among Washington state counties in per capita personal income.

The median household income in Pierce County was $61,044 in 2015. This figure was below the median household income of the state ($61,817) and above the nation’s ($56,709).

The 2015, 12.4 percent of the population of Pierce County was living below the poverty level, compared to the state at 11.3 percent and the nation (14.7 percent). The state and national rates are not directly comparable to the county rate because they each use different data sources.

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

Pierce County’s population in 2016 was estimated to be 861,312. The county has added over 66,000 residents since 2010.

The largest city in Pierce County is Tacoma with 211,277 residents, nearly 13,000 more residents than 2010.

Population facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Pierce County Washington state
 Population 2016 861,312  7,288,000 
 Population 2010 795,225  6,724,540 
 Percent change, 2010 to 2016 8.3%  8.4% 

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Pierce County had proportionately more young people (below the age of 18) and fewer older residents (65 and older) than the state in 2016.

  • Pierce County had 6.8 percent of its population under the age of 5 years compared to the state’s share of 6.2 percent.
  • Those under the age of 18 made up 23.7 percent of Pierce County’s population compared to 22.4 percent of the state’s population.
  • The oldest age group, those 65 and older, made up 13.4 percent of Pierce County’s population compared to 14.8 percent of the state’s population.

Females made up 50.3 percent of the population in Pierce County compared with 50.0 percent of the population in Washington state.

Pierce County has been becoming more diverse along racial and ethnic lines. Black residents made up 7.5 percent of Pierce County’s total population compared to 4.1 percent of the state’s population.


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Pierce County Washington state
 Population by age, 2016
Under 5 years old 6.8%  6.2% 
Under 18 years old 23.7%  22.4% 
65 years and older 13.4%  14.8% 
 Females, 2016 50.3%  50.0% 
 Race/ethnicity, 2016
White 75.6%  80.0% 
Black 7.5%  4.1% 
American Indian, Alaskan Native 1.7%  1.9% 
Asian, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander 8.2%  9.4% 
Hispanic or Latino, any race 10.6%  12.4% 

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Most Pierce County residents age 25 and older (90.9 percent) were high school graduates, which matches the state with 90.4 percent, compared with 86.7 percent of U.S. residents in the period 2011-2015.

Those with a bachelor’s degree or higher made up 24.7 percent of Pierce County residents age 25 and older compared to 32.9 percent of state residents and 29.8 percent of U.S. residents during the same period.

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Useful links

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