Clark County profile

Washington state map with Clark county highlighted by Scott Bailey, 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

Clark County is located in southwest Washington on the Columbia River, roughly 100 miles upstream from the Pacific Ocean. It is the fifth most populous county in the state, and has a large employment base that has been diversifying into headquarters and upper-end services. 

The county is also part of the Portland Metropolitan Area, and its economy can be understood only in that context: one-third of the county’s labor force, about 60,000 workers, commutes to Portland on a daily basis, while only 11,000 commute in the opposite direction. The lack of a sales tax in Oregon has led to significant leakage of retail sales, lowering both retail investment and tax revenues for local governments. Clark County has excellent transportation linkages, including proximity to Portland International Airport, location on east-west and north-south rail lines, and immediate access to Interstate 5 north-south and Interstate 84 heading east.

Local economy

Before the advent of Europeans, the area around Clark County was part of a densely-settled region of native tribes (primarily the Chinook) along the Columbia River. The area was rich in salmon, the high-protein camas root, wapato, bitterroot, berries, along with deer, elk, and waterfowl. There was an active trade network with tribes throughout the Northwest. Between 1820 and 1850 diseases brought by traders and fur trappers killed off many natives (up to 90 percent in some cases), and from 1850 onwards U.S. troops forced natives to move to reservations. Fort Vancouver served as a holding center for Indians captured in wars in other parts of the Northwest, before they were forcibly settled elsewhere.

White settlers began arriving in large numbers in the 1850s, initially drawn by farmland and timber. In fact, the first apple tree in the state is still standing there. The Camas paper mill was started in the 1870s. The cheap power from damming the Columbia helped spur industrialization, including an aluminum smelter built in the late 1930s that closed in 2001 following the Enron energy price manipulation.

In the 1970s, the county began to attract investment in electronics, which became its most important industry in the 1990s and remains so today, despite the loss of one-third of its employment base in the 2001 recession. Wafertech, Hewlett Packard, SEH America and Linear Semiconductor remain important employers.

Employment grew rapidly in all sectors during the 1990s, but slowed after the 2001 recession. Construction and homebuilding remained strong until the housing bubble burst in 2006-07. The county lost 6 percent of its employment base in the downturn, about the same as the state and nation, but by late 2017 was 18 percent above its pre-recession peak, compared with 11 percent for the state and 6 percent for the nation.

Major industry sectors in Clark County include healthcare and social assistance (25,100 jobs in 2016), professional & business services (19,000), retail trade (17,900 jobs), leisure and hospitality (14,900 jobs) and manufacturing (13,600 jobs). In addition, government employed 24,700, over half of which were in public education.

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Geographic facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Clark  County Rank in state
 Land area, 2010 (square miles) 629  35 
 Persons per square mile, 2010 676 

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Clark County’s labor market had another good year in 2016. Employment was up 4 percent for the third year in a row, and most sectors were adding jobs. The exceptions were manufacturing and information services, both of which leveled off. Preliminary data for 2017 indicate that the expansion continued on pace. While a slowdown is inevitable at some point, there is nothing to indicate that 2018 won’t be a good year as well.

The biggest single event in 2017 was the opening of the Ilani Casino, operated by the Cowlitz Tribe, near La Center. The casino employs in the neighborhood of 1,000 staff, and there are adjacent restaurants as well. In addition, the extensive planned redevelopment of the waterfront along the Columbia River west of Interstate 5 was well underway, with construction on two buildings and a pier over the river and plans announced for more building in the coming years.

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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.

Clark County’s unemployment rate was below the state and national averages throughout the 1990s, but above both since 2000. The financial meltdown and subsequent recession widened the gap to four percentage points in 2010. Unemployment has dropped since then due to job growth, but remains higher than average, with a preliminary average of 6.3 percent in 2016. Preliminary estimates for 2017 look to be a point to a point and a half lower—September 2017 came in at 4.5 percent, the lowest September rate in almost two decades.

Estimates of the county labor force and employed residents should be used with caution, since their trend is significantly different—much weaker growth—than nonfarm employment, a more trustworthy data series, shows. It is in any case likely that labor force participation rate has fallen further than can be explained by demographic trends, and that a significant number of residents of prime working age (22 to 54) have yet to return to the labor market.

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Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

From 1990 to 2016, Clark County nonfarm employment grew almost three times faster than the nation, and 70 percent faster than the state. During the 2008-09 recession, employment fell by 6 percent, closely tracking the state and nation. A slow recovery started in 2010 and in early 2013 hiring accelerated and has been strong ever since. Some detail:

  • Construction employment in the county fell by 4,600 jobs (-35 percent) in the downturn. By the third quarter of 2017, these jobs had all come back. The housing market began to perk up in 2013, but even in 2016 was still below historical averages. High prices for homes and soaring rents have done little to stimulate building. 
  • Manufacturing lost 2,600 jobs (-19 percent), with 2,400 coming back in the recovery. Fabricated metals, other durable goods (which includes primary metals), food processing and other nondurable goods have all surpassed their pre-recession levels of employment, while wood and paper products have continued to cut jobs.
  • Wholesale trade employment dropped by 12 percent (-700 jobs) before roaring back with 2,100 jobs in the recovery, for a net gain of 1,400 jobs, as Clark County continued to develop as a distribution center.
  • Employment in retail trade declined by 1,300 jobs (-8 percent), as taxable retail sales dropped by 20 percent from the pre-recession peak. Both employment and sales began to recover in 2011, and by September 2017, the job loss had been recouped and then some with a net gain of 2,600 jobs. Taxable sales in the first quarter of 2017 topped their previous peak by 19 percent.
  • Transportation & warehousing fell by 400 jobs in the downturn, gained 200 back for a net +200.
  • Information services declined by only 3 percent in the recession (-100 jobs), and added almost 500 jobs in the recovery, helped along by telecom service provider Integra’s decision to move back to Vancouver.
  • Finance & insurance shed 600 jobs in 2007-08 (-13 percent). Hiring resumed in 2012, and by September 2017, the industry had 1,500 jobs more than before the recession. The expansion of Fisher Investments has been a major factor in this sector.
  • It was a different matter with real estate, rental & leasing, which was hit not only by the downturn in real estate, but the decline of video rental stores. Employment declined by 400 jobs (-14 percent) from its 2007 high, and so far during the recovery has added 600 jobs for a net gain of 200 jobs.
  • Professional services lost 300 jobs on the way down (-5 percent), but has grown by 2,200 jobs on the way back. Computer systems design expanded continuously, adding 1,100 jobs since 2007.
  • Clark County received a big shot in the arm when PeaceHealth moved its headquarters to Vancouver after purchasing the Southwest Medical Center, and a second boost when Banfield Pet Hospital moved their headquarters in 2016. Partly as a result, employment in corporate offices rose by 2,100 jobs since 2008. Some of that increase was due to employment being reclassified from health care to corporate office administration.
  • Business services employed 7,100 in early 2008 when the recession-related layoffs began in earnest. The industry lost 1,000 of those jobs in a year’s time, before working its way back to a net gain of 500 jobs. Most of the loss came in temporary staffing services, which remained 300 jobs below its 2006 peak in 2017.
  • Private educational services was one of the few sectors that grew through the recession, nearly doubling its payrolls by adding 900 jobs.
  • Healthcare and social assistance added 2,000 jobs (+10 percent) during the downturn, though the annual growth rate slowed. About half the increase came in home health services. The recovery brought another 3,400 jobs to this sector.
  • Leisure & hospitality suffered a sizable loss (-1,200 jobs, -9 percent) with a rally beginning in 2011 that resulted in a net gain of 2,900 jobs. Arts, entertainment & recreation services was still showing a net loss of employment. Full-service restaurants employed 1,000 more, and limited-service restaurant 1,900 more, than before the recession. By early 2017, taxable sales at both restaurants and lodging were both substantially higher than their pre-downturn levels.
  • Public sector payrolls continued to rise in the early part of the recession, growing by 900 jobs, mostly in public education, before peaking in 2009. Cutbacks occurred over the next two years, before being restored over the past four years. By late 2017, federal employment was 700 jobs higher than in 2007; state government was just about even; public K-12 education was up 1,400 jobs, and other local governments were up by 900 jobs.

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, 14 percent of the jobs in Clark County were held by workers under the age of 25, while 21 percent of jobs were held by those aged 55 and over. The rest of the jobs were evenly split among those aged 25 to 34, 35 to 44 and 45 to 54 with each about 21 to 22 percent of the total. The county’s age profile closely matches that of the state.

Jobs were almost evenly divided between men (49 percent) and women (51 percent) in 2016. There were substantial differences in gender dominance by industry.

  • Male-dominated industries included construction (81 percent), manufacturing (73 percent) and wholesale trade (68 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (80 percent), educational services (public and private combined, 73 percent) and finance and insurance (57 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)

The 2016 average annual wage was $48,860, well below the state and national averages. The average has risen almost every year for the past two decades. With rising wage inequality, it’s important to look beyond the average to get a more detailed look at wage distribution.

The median hourly wage for jobs in Clark County in 2016 was $21.56, a modest increase (1.4 percent) over 2015. Clark’s median was more than $2 per hour below the state median. The county median for the private sector rose by only 0.9 percent, a surprising result considering that employment growth has been rapid for a number of years. While the labor market has tightened, there was apparently enough slack that employers didn’t need to raise wages in any significant, across-the-board manner.

The county has been seeing an increase in the number and pay of higher-wage jobs. From 2001 to 2016, the total number of jobs increased by 30 percent, while the number of those paying above $48.00 per hour more than doubled. The average wage for the top 10 percent of jobs rose by 22 percent over that period, while the average wage for jobs paying below the median rose by 7 to 8 percent. The rapid growth in higher-wage jobs was welcome news, the growing disparity in wages, not so much.

During the recession, there were substantially higher losses for low- and medium-wage jobs than for higher-wage jobs, as shown in the table below. For example, the number of jobs paying below $12 per hour fell by 10.3 percent, while the number of those paying above $30 per hour declined by 1.7 percent. In the recovery, the number of jobs paying below $12 per hour continued to decline, as the minimum wage crept upward, while there was a substantial increase in jobs in higher-wage categories. Overall, from 2007 to 2016, there was a decline in the number of jobs paying below $12 per hour, a moderate change in mid-range jobs and a significant increase in the number paying $30 per hour and higher. The industries with the largest change in higher-wage jobs were health care, finance and corporate headquarters (NAICS 55).

Percent change in the number of full-time-equivalent jobs by hourly wage in Clark County

Hourly wage range
Years<$12.00$12.00 - $17.99$18.00 - $23.99$24.00 - $29.99$30+
2007-2010 -10.3% -11.9% -8.3% -8.7% -1.7%
2010-2016 -3.4% 21.7% 13.4% 17.3% 30.0%
2007-2016 -13.3% 7.2% 4.0% 7.1% 27.8%

Focusing again on wage disparity, the table below shows that the average wage for lowest-paid 60 percent of jobs rose by around 6 percent from 2007 to 2016. Meanwhile jobs at the upper end of the wage spectrum paid 16 percent higher on average.

Percent change in the average hourly wage in Clark County

Wage groups
YearsLowest-paid 20 percent of jobsNext 20 percent of jobsMiddle-paid 20 percent of jobsNext 20 percent of jobsNext 10 percent of jobsHighest-paid 10 percent of jobs
2007-2010 1.2% 2.2% 2.5% 3.5% 4.5% 3.9%
2010-2016 5.0% 3.6% 3.3% 4.4% 5.5% 11.6%
2007-2016 6.3% 5.9% 5.9% 8.0% 10.2% 15.9%

Not surprisingly, median household income declined sharply in the recession, falling 9.7 percent from 2007 to 2010 – compared with 4.4 percent for the state and 5.8 percent nationally. From 2010 to 2016, however, the county rose by 15.4 percent, the state by 10.7 percent, and the U.S. by 5.6 percent. Clark’s 2016 median household income of $69,062 was higher than both the state ($67,106) and the U.S. ($57,617).

Household income became increasingly unequal over the past decade. Income for the poorest 20 percent of households was estimated at $19,288 in 2016, an increase of 6.5 percent from 2006 to 2016. In contrast, the average for the top 5 percent of households was $370,197 in 2016, and grew by 19.5 percent over the past ten years.

Average household income by quintile, Clark County, 2016

Income quintiles
YearsLowest quintileSecond quintileThird quintileFourth quintileFifth quintileTop 5 percent
Income $19,288 $44,710 $69,418 $102,584 $209,623 $370,197
2015-2016 6.0% 7.5% 7.3% 5.7% 5.5% 6.1%
2006-2016 6.5% 4.0% 6.6% 8.8% 14.2% 19.5%

Clark County’s poverty rate rose from 9.3 percent in 2007 to 13.7 percent in 2011, before falling to 8.8 percent in 2016, well below the state (11.3 percent) and nation (14.0 percent). The poverty rate for children was higher, but followed the same pattern, going from 11.0 percent to 18.0 percent then down to 9.6 percent. Each of the county rates was lower than any of the annual measures from the American Community Survey going back to 2005, as well as the 1999 rates from the 2000 Census.

graph of Clark County househol incomes

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, Clark County per capita personal income was $45,070, well below the state and nation but the highest on record. Per capita income fell by 7 percent in the recession, but had completely recovered by 2015. Back in 1997, Clark was above the national average, but has not kept pace, and was 6 percent below in 2015. The gap was primarily due to lower average earnings.

Investment income was still below where it was in 2008, before the stock market plummeted. Transfer payments rose by 54 percent from 2007 to 2015, driven by an aging population (Social Security and Medicare) and the expansion of health insurance coverage for low-income residents (Medicaid). In addition, expenditures for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps), while declining in the past few years, were more than double due to the lingering impacts of the recession.

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

Clark County’s population was estimated at 471,000 in 2017. The county was the fastest-growing in the state in the 1990s, and one of the faster ones in the 2000s until the recession hit. Growth in the past was spurred by in-migration of new residents, but in 2010, more people moved out of the county than moved in for the first time since 1984. In-migration turned (barely) positive in 2011, and then roared back in 2014-17. Vancouver is the largest city in the county, and the fourth largest in the state, with a population of 176,400 in 2017.

Population facts

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

Clark County Washington state
 Population 2017 471,000  7,218,759 
 Population 2000 345,238  5,894,121 
 Percent change, 2000 to 2017 36.4%  22.5% 

Age, gender and ethnicity

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

When compared with the state and nation, Clark County’s population has a greater proportion of its population between the ages of 5 and 19 years old, a smaller proportion aged 20 to 34, and similar proportions for other ages.

The county is much less diverse in terms of race and ethnicity than the state and nation, but has been slowly getting more diverse. In 2015, 81.0 percent of Clark’s population was white and not Hispanic, compared with 71 percent statewide and 63 percent nationally. Just over 8 percent of Clark County’s population was Hispanic or Latino, versus 12 percent of the state and 17 percent nationally.


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

Clark County Washington state
 Population by age, 2016
Under 5 years old 6.1%  6.2% 
Under 18 years old 24.2%  22.6% 
65 years and older 14.9%  14.9% 
 Females, 2016 50.6%  50.0% 
 Race/ethnicity, 2016
White, not Hispanic or Latino 79.6%  69.7% 
Black 2.0%  3.6% 
American Indian, Alaskan Native 0.7%  1.3% 
Asian, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander 5.3%  8.7% 
Hispanic or Latino, any race 8.8%  12.6% 

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

In 2016, 29.5 percent of Clark County residents age 25 and older had a bachelor’s degree or higher. That was lower than the nation (31.3 percent) and state (35.1 percent). As Clark continues to attract more managerial and professional jobs, the county’s educational attainment will move closer to the state and nation.

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Useful links

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