Thurston County profile

Washington state map with Thurston county highlightedby Jim Vleming, regional labor economist - updated November 2017

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


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.

In 2017, Forbes Magazine ranked the Olympia-Tumwater MSA (Thurston County) #32 for the best places in the nation for business and careers. 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 in 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 employment share when the state capitol was completed in 1927. By the 1950s, state government surpassed lumber employment. Logging mills were closed in the 1960s. Thurston County then 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 dependent upon government employment as 33.5 percent of all nonfarm employment can be attributed to federal, state and local government jobs. Looking back to 2010, federal government employment has declined by 10.7 percent, with overall state government employment up only 5.8 percent.

Moving forward, many of the government-related budget questions remain unresolved as the state, local municipalities and school districts continue to look for ways to fully fund education while maintaining other government services.

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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 

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The year 2017 has continued the run of positive news for the Thurston County economy. The unemployment rate has remained low and nonfarm payrolls have expanded consistently over the year.

Government employment in the county has remained steady and strong with no reason to see this trend not continuing into 2018. Ground has been broken on many new projects, including a craft brewing and retail sector in Tumwater which will include craft brewing space, distillery space and South Puget Sound Community College classrooms, as it launches new craft brewing and distillery classes. New hotels have been built or renovated and rooms are being filled on a regular basis. The general tone of this data supports a belief in continued prosperity as we march into 2018.

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Labor force and unemployment

(Source: Employment Security Department, WITS)

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

The average annual unemployment rate in the county has dropped every year since 2011, when the rate was 9.0 percent. In 2016 the rate averaged 5.8 percent. This year, through the September preliminary data, the county is averaging 5.0 percent unemployment.

In 2017 there have been on average 6,658 county residents unemployed as 127,099 received paychecks. That compares to 7,604 unemployed in 2016 with 123,049 at work. Since 2014 the labor force has grown, demonstrating confidence in the local labor market.

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Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department, WITS)

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

Thurston County average annual nonfarm employment totaled above 100,000 jobs from 2007 through 2009 before dropping below that level in 2010 and 2011. In 2016 employment in nonfarm categories averaged 112,900 jobs. Through the first nine months of 2017, average employment exceeded every corresponding month of 2016, and now has surpassed the 2016 annual average.

From September 2016 to September 2017, state nonfarm jobs expanded by 2.3 percent. In Thurston County over that same time period, nonfarm employment is up 2.1 percent.

Looking at the September 2017 numbers, nonfarm payrolls in Thurston County are up 2,400 over September 2016, including government (+700), retail trade (+100) and construction (+1,500). Also adding steam to the economy were professional and business services, up 100.

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 two largest employed age categories were those 45 to 54 years old, with 21.9 percent of the jobs and those 55 and older with 24.5 percent of the jobs.

Men held 46.5 percent of the jobs in the county and women held 53.5 percent of jobs in 2016.

  • Male-dominated industries included mining (87.4 percent), construction (84.0 percent) and transportation and warehousing (75.1 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (78.5 percent), education (67.6 percent) and finance and insurance (67.6 percent).

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Wages and income

(Source: Employment Security Department, WITS; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; Bureau of Economic Analysis; U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey)

In 2016, there were 110,188 covered employment jobs in Thurston County. The total payroll for 2016 was over $5.2 billion dollars.

In 2016 the average annual wage was $47,800, compared to the state average of $59,073.

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 2015 was $44,155 compared to the state at $51,898 and the nation at $48,112. It ranks 14th for per capita income in Washington state.

Median household income over the period 2015 was $61,677 higher than that of the state ($61,062) and the nation ($53,889), according to the U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts.

The percent of the county’s population below the official poverty rate in 2015 was 12.2 percent compared to the state’s rate of 11.3 percent and the nation’s at 12.7 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts. 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 State Office of Financial Management)

Thurston County’s estimated population in April 2017 was 276,900. The growth rate from 2010 to 2017 in Thurston County was 9.8 percent.

The largest city in the county is Olympia with 52,160 inhabitants, followed by Lacey (48,700) and Tumwater (23,210).

Population facts

(Source: Washington State Office of Financial Management)

Thurston County Washington state
 Population 2017 276,900  7,310,300
 Population 2010 252,264  6,724,543 
 Percent change, 2010 to 2017 9.8%  8.7% 

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Thurston County had an older population than the state in 2016. Thurston County’s population of those aged 65 and older was 16.5 percent compared to the state’s 14.8 percent.

Those under 18 years old were 21.7 percent of the county population, slightly less than that of the state’s 22.4 percent. Those under five years old made up 5.9 percent of Thurston County’s population compared to the state’s 6.2 percent.

Thurston County showed somewhat less diversity in 2016 than the state in racial/ethnic categories, with whites making up 82.4 percent of its population compared to 80.0 percent of the state’s population. There was 5.4 percent of the county’s population reporting two or more races in 2016 compared to 4.6 percent at the state level. The county’s population had slightly more native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders (1.0 percent) than the state (0.8 percent).


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Thurston County Washington state
 Population by age, 2016
Under 5 years old 5.9%  6.2% 
Under 18 years old 21.7%  22.4% 
65 years and older 16.5%  14.8% 
 Females, 2016 51.1%  50.0% 
 Race/ethnicity, 2016
White 82.4%  80.0% 
Black 3.5%  4.1% 
American Indian, Alaskan Native 1.7%  1.9% 
Asian, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander 7.0%  9.4% 
Hispanic or Latino, any race 8.6%  12.4% 

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Most Thurston County residents age 25 and older (93.4 percent) were high school graduates, which compares favorably with 90.4 percent of Washington state’s residents and 86.7 percent of U.S. residents in the year 2015.

Those with a bachelor’s degree or higher made up 33.4 percent of Thurston 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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