Benton County profile

by Ajsa Suljic, regional labor economist - updated October 2016

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


Regional context

Benton County, named after Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, was created from eastern Yakima and Klickitat counties in 1905. The county is located in southeastern Washington at the confluence of the Columbia, Snake and Yakima rivers. The Columbia River defines the north, south and east boundaries, making the county part of the semi-arid river basin in the rain shadow of the Cascade, Blue, Wallowa and Rocky mountains. Ranching and dry-land farming made up the bulk of its economy in the 1800s. Today, it is the ninth most densely populated county in the state with 103 persons per square mile due to its nuclear-related and other research and development industries. Agriculture is still a large producer in the area.

Local economy

Deer and elk, along with fishing, seeds, roots and berries provided food for the indigenous people in the area even though there was little rainfall. Migrations of white settlers into the area in the 19th century disrupted this tribal world and the Indian Wars of the 1850s resulted in tribes being moved to reservations.

The gold rush of 1858 in British Columbia brought the first large group of whites through the area. By the 1870s, cattle and horse ranchers occupied the majority of land in the area. In the 1880s, major settlements along the Columbia River were connected by steamboats and railroads, allowing farmers and ranchers to get products to market. Farming included corn, wheat, alfalfa, potatoes and fruit, especially apples. Many farmers were successful in dry-land farming. However in the 1890s, the Yakima Irrigation and Improvement Company built the first irrigation canals. With irrigation, railroad and electricity development, there were accompanying expansions of orchards, vineyards, farming and ranching.

World War II brought the Hanford Project into the county to develop the plutonium used in the first nuclear bomb. Continued federal investment has led to scientific diversification and nuclear and chemical cleanup, with skilled engineers and scientists following the jobs. In the late 1980s, Washington State University expanded into the area, offering advanced degrees. The well-educated, trained workforce has made many contributions in agricultural production, processing and research. Over time, the county has attracted a variety of manufacturers, including production of chemicals, fertilizer and zirconium tubing and titanium, along with supporting storage and distribution centers.

Growth and prosperity have continued with population growth and development centering in Kennewick, Richland and Prosser. Recreational industries and tourist attractions are developing along with the popularity of the wine industry. The economy is tied to agriculture, food processing, medical equipment manufacturing, energy production, nuclear-fuel fabrication, wine production and wine tourism.

(back to top)

Geographic facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Benton County Rank in state
 Land area, 2010 (square miles) 1,700.38  22 
 Persons per square mile, 2010 103 

(back to top)


The Benton County economic picture looks quiet promising. Recovery of local jobs following the Hanford Nuclear Reservation 2011 layoffs is well underway. It has taken two years to start recovering lost jobs in the county, with 2,225 new jobs added just over the year. Industry growth in 2015 occurred in agriculture, construction, manufacturing, educational services, healthcare, accommodation and food services and government. Local population growth continues to drive demand for more educational services as well as healthcare.

As the economy becomes more stable and moves forward with new markets, new products and technology in research and development, manufacturing and wine production and utilization are expected to play a big role in Benton County’s future prosperity. Education and healthcare is marching forward with growth to accommodate ever growing demand at the local and regional level. Benton and Franklin Counties are expected to grow nonfarm employment at the rate of 1.94 percent a year through 2019.

(back to top)

Labor force and unemployment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

Benton County resident labor force was estimated at 91,650 in 2015, with an increase of 1.9 percent from 2014. Counties unemployment rate was at 6.6 percent, which was 0.9 percent lower than in 2014. Total resident employment increased by 2.9 percent or 2,391 over the year, while resident unemployment decreased by 658 individuals.

The most recent numbers released for August 2016, the unemployment rate was 6.5 percent, which is 0.5 percent more than that in August 2015. Benton County resident labor force was 94,588, employment was 88,405 and unemployment was 6,183.Counties resident labor force is expanding and more workers are participating in the workforce activities, while at the same time resident employment is increasing as the residents are finding jobs in expanding economy.

(back to top)

Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

Benton County total covered employment was 82,291 in 2015, an increase of 2.8 percent or 2,225 jobs since 2014. Counties total covered payroll was at $4.3 billion, with an increase of 6.7 percent in 2015.As the result, covered average annual wage in Benton County was $51,700 in 2015, an increase of 3.8 percent from the average annual wage of $49,799 in 2014. In 2015, according to the BLS’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, there were 5,688 total establishments in the county.

Top 10 Industries in Benton County

(Source: Employment Security Department, QCEW)

Rank Industry % of Total
 1   Government  15.2% 
 2   Health care and social assistance  12.7% 
 3   Professional and technical services  11.6% 
 4   Administrative and waste services  11.4% 
 5   Retail trade  11.4% 
 6   Accommodation and food services  8.0% 
 7   Agriculture  7.3% 
 8   Construction  5.6% 
 9   Manufacturing  4.9% 
 10   Finance and insurance  2.1% 

Goods-producing industries, which include natural resources, mining, construction and manufacturing, decreased in employment from 2014 to 2015 by 2.1 percent, or 299 jobs. Average monthly employment in 2015 was 14,553 workers and annual wages totaled $632.9 million, which translates to a $43,488 average annual wage for goods-producing workers.

  • The manufacturing industry declined in employment over the year by 5.6 percent. The averaged employment was at 4,006 jobs in 2015, with average annual pay of $53,500. Manufacturing represented 4.9 percent of total covered employment in Benton County.
  • Construction accounted for 5.6 percent of the total average annual employment in the county with 4,604 jobs
    • The average annual wage in construction was $58,131 in 2015 up by 4.7 percent from year before.
    • Construction employment in the county increased for the third year in a row, with a 9.2 percent change over the year. Construction employment is recovering after the 2012 decline due to large layoffs from Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
  • Agriculture is one of the base industries in the area, representing 7.3 percent of total employment. It is, however, highly seasonal and volatile from year to year.
    • Average annual employment in agriculture in 2015 was 6,021, up by 2.6 percent from 2014. Nonetheless, agriculture has shown a 5.1 percent average annual growth rate over the past five years.
    • The average annual wage in agriculture was $26,136, mainly due to the seasonality of agricultural activities. Average annual wage has increased by percent over the year.

Service-providing industries are a major share (82.3 percent) of the county’s economy. There was an average of 67,738 jobs, with increase of 3.1 percent, or by 2,005 jobs. Service-providing industries paid an average annual wage of $53,464 in 2015, up by 3.6 percent over the year.

  • Healthcare and social assistance employment in the private sector was 10,483 jobs, which represented about 12.7 percent of total employment in 2015 and the second largest industry cluster in the county. Healthcare and social assistance increased by 2.5 percent from 2014, with increases in different segments including hospitals and ambulatory health care services. Healthcare and social assistance industry is the fourth largest payroll in the county with $472.7 million. The average annual wage in this industry was $45,096.
  • Accommodations and food services increased by 5.2 percent over the year, with total employment at 6,586. Total payrolls are at $113.4 million with average annual wage at $17,214. Major contribution of growth comes from the accommodation services as new hotels raise from the grounds and offer their services. This industry continues to expand at the rate of 2.7 percent a year since 2010.
  • Government employment, which includes both public education and health care totaled at 12,548 in 2015, which is the largest industry in the area with an increase of 2.0 percent from 2014.
    • Over 83.4 percent of total employment in government was in local government, 10.3 percent in state government and 6.3 percent in federal government.
    • Second largest payroll in the county at $750.8 million, with an average annual wage at $59,841.
  • The administrative and support and waste management and remediation industry sector in Benton County represent 11.4 percent of total employment. The average annual employment in this sector was at 9,350 in 2015 with an increase of 3.3 percent from 2014. Total covered payrolls were at $733.7 million in 2015, with an increase over the year of 8.8 percent. Average annual wages for this sector was at $78,466.
  • The retail trade is the fifth largest employing industry in Benton County, representing 11.4 percent of total employment.
    • In 2015, this industry had an average of 9,341 jobs, with $257.3 million in payroll with average annual wage of $27,549.
    • The largest contributors of growth were electronics and appliance stores with an increase over the year by 10.8 percent, followed by motor vehicles and parts dealers’ increase of 9.5 percent and building material and garden supply stores increased by 8.2 percent.
  • The professional, scientific and technical services industry is the largest private industry in Benton County with an 11.6 percent share of total employment.
    • This industry had an average annual employment of 9,578, with an increase of 2.0 percent since 2014.
    • Total payroll for this industry was at $883.3 million, with over the year increase of 4.9 percent. Average annual wages were at $92,218 for the industry workers
  • The fastest growing industry over the year has been transportation and warehousing at 14.5 percent increase from 2014. This industry makes up only 1.1 percent of total, but it is expanding rapidly. Total payrolls in this industry are at $37.5 million, with an average annual wage at $43,238

 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, the largest share of employment was held by 25 to 34 year-olds at 21.7 percent, which is close to the state’s figure of 21.8 percent. The age group of 45 to 54 year-olds had a 21.5 percent share of employment, followed by those 35 to 44 years-old at 20.9 percent.

  • The county’s employment showed male workers at 51.2 percent and females at 48.8 percent.
  • Male-dominated industries included construction (80.8 percent), utilities (76.2 percent), wholesale trade (74.9 percent), transportation and warehousing (72.6 percent) and administrative and waste management (69.6 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (80.2 percent), educational services (72.9 percent), finance and insurance (68.7 percent) and accommodation and food services (55.5 percent).

(back to top)

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 2015, there were 82,291 jobs in Benton County covered by unemployment insurance, with a total payroll of over $4.3 billion.

The average annual wage was $51,700 in 2015 for Benton County while for the state was at $56,650 and the state less King County at $45,760. Benton County average annual wage is third highest in the state. The median hourly wage in 2015 was $22.53, below the state’s median hourly wage of $23.15.

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 2014, Benton County’s personal income totaled at $7.6 million and per capita personal income was $40,956, less than the state ($49,610) and the nation ($46,049).

According to the U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts, the median household income was $60,589 in 2010-2014. The county’s median was slightly more than that of the state ($60,294) during the same period.

Benton County’s poverty rate of 14.6 percent is above Washington state’s rate of 12.2 percent and the nation’s rate of 13.5 percent in 2014, according to U.S Census Bureau QuickFacts.

(back to top)


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

In 2015, Benton County’s population was 190,309 with a 8.6 percent growth from 2010 to 2015 compared to the state’s growth rate of 6.6 percent over the same time period.

The largest city in Benton County is Kennewick with a population of 79,120 in 2015.Second largest city is Richland with population at 53,410. Third largest is West Richland with population of 14,340.

Population facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Benton County Washington state
 Population 2015 190,309  7,170,351 
 Population 2010 175,177  6,724,540 
 Percent change, 2010 to 2015 8.6%  6.6% 

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Benton County has a younger population than does the state.

  • Benton County’s largest population was under 18 years of age (26.7 percent) compared to the state (22.5 percent) in 2015.
  • Residents under the age of 5 years old made up 7.2 percent of the total population compared to 6.2 percent in the state in 2015.
  • In 2015, Benton County’s population 65 years and older made up 13.8 percent of the total compared to 14.4 percent of the state’s population.

The gender split in the county was 49.8 percent female compared to 50.2 percent in the state in 2015.

Benton County is not as racially or ethnically diverse as the state except in its Hispanic or Latino residents, who can be any race. Hispanics or Latinos were 21.0 percent of the population compared with 12.4 percent in the state.


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Benton County Washington state
Population by age, 2015
Under 5 years old 7.2%  6.2% 
Under 18 years old 26.7%  22.5% 
65 years and older 13.8%  14.4% 
Females, 2015 49.8%  50.0% 
Race/ethnicity, 2015
White 90.8%  80.3% 
Black 1.7%  4.1% 
American Indian, Alaskan Native 1.2%  1.9% 
Asian, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander 3.3%  9.1% 
Hispanic or Latino, any race 21.0%  12.4% 

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

About 88.7 percent of Benton County’s population 25 years and older were high school graduates, 2010-2014. This graduation rate compares to that of the state’s rate of 90.2 percent.

Those holding a bachelor’s degree or higher made up 29.2 percent of Benton County residents age 25 and older compared to 32.3 percent of state residents.

(back to top)


Useful links

(back to top)