Kittitas County profile

Washington state map with Kittitas county highlightedby Don Meseck, 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

Kittitas County is in the center of the state, 100 miles east of Seattle across the Cascade Mountain Range. The county is bordered by Chelan, Grant and Yakima counties. With 2,297 square miles, it is one of the largest counties in the state. Over two-thirds of its area is hilly and mountainous, making it sparsely populated with 17.8 persons per square mile compared to 101.1 in Washington state in 2010.

Local economy

Native American inhabitants in the Kittitas Valley date back almost 300 years in official records. The forerunners of the contemporary Yakama Nation occupied the land along the Yakima River, including the Kittitas Valley. The 1840s saw an influx of Euro-American settlers who brought measles and other diseases deadly to the indigenous population. The Treaty of 1855, following the Cayuse Indian War, resulted in the tribes moving to the Yakama and Colville Reservations. The 1883 Washington Territorial Legislature split off the northern part of Yakima County and recognized it as Kittitas County.

White settlers engaged in livestock raising, crop farming, dairying, logging and lumber processing and mining. Irrigation promoted an expansion in agriculture and food processing. By 1950, agriculture was a major sector in employment and income. By the 1960’s, the horse industry, including horseracing, showing and recreation horses increased the demand for hay. Many ranchers switched to hay and grain production as feed costs rose and price controls limited beef profitability.

Today, Timothy hay is a major Kittitas County cash crop. According to an article prepared by the Federal Census of Agriculture and published in the Daily Record Spring 2016 edition of the Ag Journal: “The value to growers of all hay produced in Kittitas County is estimated at more than $50 million annually, with timothy estimated to value up to $45 million of that total. These estimates are for a typical good harvest year with stable hay prices. Timothy and alfalfa hay grown for the export market is the single-largest agricultural product raised in Kittitas County. In a good harvest year, about 90 percent of the timothy hay crop is exported overseas to Japan, South Korea, United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, and other Pacific Rim countries, with Japan being the single largest export customer.”

Looking at wages generated in the local economy, state government and local government are ranked “Number One” and “Number Two” respectively, in terms of payroll. In 2016, state government provided 20.6 percent and local government accounted for 18.4 percent, for a total of 39.0 percent, of total covered wages in Kittitas County. Hence, nearly four out of every ten dollars of wage income generated in Kittitas County during 2016 was earned by people working for a state or local government organization.

(back to top)

Geographic facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Kittitas County Washington state
 Land area, 2010 (square miles) 2,297.27  66,455.42 
 Persons per square mile, 2010 17.8  101.2 

(back to top)


The Kittitas County nonfarm economy has generally been on a recovery path since the substantial 4.5 percent, and 680-job downturn in employment during calendar year 2009. During the past seven years (inclusive), from 2010 through 2016, average annual nonfarm employment has expanded in five years with a modest two-year slump in calendar years 2012 and 2013 (see the “Industry Employment” section of this report).

Between 2015 and 2016, Kittitas County's economy provided 530 new nonfarm jobs as total nonfarm employment rose from 15,950 in 2015 to 16,480 in 2016, an average annual increase of 3.3 percent. This was slightly more robust than the state’s 3.1 percent job growth rate during this timeframe. Current monthly WA-QB data shows that, year over year, the Kittitas County nonfarm market expanded for 32 straight months (from October 2014 through May 2017), dipped 1.7 percent between the Junes of 2016 and 2017, and resumed growth in July and August 2017. Between the Augusts of 2016 and 2017, the number of nonfarm jobs rose by 440, from 15,400 to 15,840 respectively, a 2.9 percent increase.

Official, long-term (i.e. ten-year) employment projections produced by the Employment Security Department are for a 1.4 percent average annual nonfarm job growth rate from 2015-2025 for the four-county South Central WDA (i.e., Kittitas, Klickitat, Skamania and Yakima counties) and for a 1.5 percent growth rate for Washington state.

(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.

Unemployment rates in Kittitas County were reasonably consistent in the four-year period from 2005 to 2008 (before the recession). Rates ranged from a low of 5.4 percent in 2007 to the “high” of 6.3 percent in 2008. During the recent recession however, the unemployment rate in Kittitas County peaked at 9.8 percent in 2010. Average annual unemployment rates have been on the decline ever since. The unemployment rate fell to 9.3 percent in 2011, to 8.8 percent in 2012, to 7.8 percent in 2013, to 6.9 percent in 2014, 6.3 percent in 2015, and to 6.0 percent in 2016.  Hence, rates during the past two years (2015 and 2016) have been comparable to pre-recession rates experienced from 2005 through 2008.

Kittitas County averaged 20,838 residents in the labor force 2015 and 21,648 in 2016, a 3.9 percent expansion. The local CLF grew from 20,456 residents in August 2016 to 21,022 in August 2017, a 2.8 percent increase, while the number of unemployed residents plummeted 17.7 percent. The result was that Kittitas County’s unemployment rate dropped one and one-tenths points between the Augusts of 2016 and 2017, from 5.8 to 4.7 percent – continued good news for the local economy. In fact, the August 2017 unemployment rate of 4.7 percent was the lowest reading for the month of August since the 4.5 percent reading in August 1999 – 18 years ago.

Washington's Civilian Labor Force (CLF) expanded by 98,209 residents (a 2.8 percent upturn) from 2015 to 2016. The state’s labor force has increased, year over year, for the past 43 months (February 2014 through August 2017). In August 2017, Washington’s CLF tallied 3,743,407 residents versus 3,658,770 in August 2016 equating to 84,637 more Washingtonians in the labor force (up 2.3 percent).

(back to top)

Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

The analysis in the first part of this “Industry employment” section is derived primarily from Quarterly Benchmarked (WA-QB) data. One advantage of these data is that the employment information is very current and data are updated monthly using WA_QB employment estimates. However, estimates are nonfarm related (i.e., they do not include agricultural employment figures).

The analysis in the second part of this “Industry employment” section is derived from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wage (QCEW) program, conducted by the Washington State Employment Security Department. Although it takes a little longer to acquire QCEW data (than WA-QB data), the economic information provided is broader and more detailed than that provided by WA-QB.

First, QCEW includes employment, wage and size of firm figures for the agricultural sector, which WA-QB does not include. Second, QCEW data provides employment, wage and size of firm figures for businesses and government organizations in Kittitas County down to the 3-digit NAICS sub-sector level (i.e., more detail than WA-QB). QCEW data include agricultural and nonagricultural employment and wages for firms, organizations and individuals whose employees are covered by the Washington State Employment Security Act. Also included are data for Federal Government agencies covered by Title 5, U.S.C. 85. Covered employment generally exceeds 85 percent of total employment in the state of Washington.

Types of jobs not covered under the unemployment compensation system and hence not included in QCEW data include casual laborers not performing duties in the course of the employer’s trade or business; railroad personnel; newspaper delivery people; insurance or real estate agents paid on a commission basis only; non-covered employees working for parochial schools, religious, or non-profit organizations; employees of sheltered workshops; inmates working in penal institutions; non-covered corporate officers; etc.

Analysis using Quarterly Benchmarked data:

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) announced that the national recession occurred from December 2007 through June 2009. The effects of this recession hit the Kittitas County labor market hard in 2009 with a dramatic average annual job loss of 4.5 percent (down 680 jobs). This was followed by a brief, one-year “growth spurt” in 2010 (up 2.6 percent) and the three lackluster years of 2011 (up 0.3 percent), 2012 (down 0.3 percent), and 2013 (down 0.2 percent).  Finally, in 2014 nonfarm employment averaged 15,220, a 370-job and 2.5-percent upturn over the 14,850 jobs tallied in 2013. Job growth rates in the three to four-percent range have continued into 2015 and 2016 – good news for the local economy. A synopsis of average annual local nonfarm employment trends in Kittitas County from 2009 through 2016 follows:

  • In 2009 – Total nonfarm employment in Kittitas County receded 4.5 percent in 2009 (down 680 jobs) to an average annual figure of 14,500. Construction tallied 350 fewer jobs countywide between 2008 and 2009 while leisure and hospitality netted 130 fewer jobs. Combined, these two industries lost 480 jobs, or 70.5 percent, of all nonfarm jobs lost in Kittitas County in 2009. Washington state also had a dismal year, falling 4.4 percent in 2009 (down 131,100 jobs) to an average annual figure of 2,862,700 jobs.
  • In 2010 – Total nonfarm employment rose 2.6 percent (up 380 jobs) from 14,500 in 2009 to an average annual figure of 14,880. Although some industries still lost jobs during 2010 (construction and retail trade each lost 70 jobs), wholesale trade fought back by adding 70 new jobs, private education and health services netted 80 more jobs, and state and local government education jumped by 350 (rising 9.3 percent from 3,770 in 2009 to 4,120 jobs in 2010). This latter category includes student employment at CWU, in addition to staff and faculty positions, and teaching and non-teaching positions in local public primary and secondary schools, etc. The state’s nonfarm market contracted by 0.9 percent, down to an average of 2,835,900 jobs, in 2010.
  • In 2011 – Kittitas County’s economy edged upwards 0.3 percent as the number of nonfarm jobs rose from 14,880 to 14,930 for an average annual upturn of 50. Leisure and hospitality (primarily hotels and restaurants) dominated this advance by providing 2,310 jobs in 2010 and 2,520 in 2011, a substantial 210-job and 9.1 percent expansion. This advance outweighed a loss of 60 jobs amongst local retail trade stores and a loss of 50 jobs in state and local government education. Washington’s recovery began in 2011, following the recent recession. Total nonfarm employment expanded by 1.3 percent between 2010 and 2011, to 2,872,200 jobs (up 36,300 jobs since 2010).
  • In 2012 – The local nonfarm market did some backsliding between 2011 and 2012, as the number of nonfarm jobs contracted by 0.3 percent, to 14,880, equating to a 50-job average annual downturn. Despite the local economy generating 60 more private education and health services jobs (from 1,320 in 2011 to 1,380 in 2012), state and local government provided 120 fewer jobs (from 4,070 in 2011 to 3,950 in 2012). Despite this softening in the local job market in 2012, Washington’s economy moved into its second year of recovery. Total nonfarm employment statewide grew 1.6 percent between 2011 and 2012, to 2,919,300 jobs (up 47,100 jobs since 2011).
  • In 2013 – Kittitas County’s economy experienced another “less than stellar” year. Total nonfarm employment edged downward by 0.2 percent, slipping from 14,880 jobs in 2012 to 14,850 in 2013. The mining, logging, and construction category netted 60 new jobs, a 9.2 percent upturn (with the lion’s share of this upturn occurring in construction).  Unfortunately, manufacturing averaged 40 fewer jobs (down 6.7 percent) while transportation, warehousing and utilities thinned its ranks by 50 (down 17.9 percent). Meanwhile, across the state in 2013, the recovery entered its third year. Total nonfarm employment increased 2.2 percent as the economy generated 63,900 new jobs and employment averaged 2,982,700.
  • In 2014 – This appears to be the year in which a sustained economic recovery began in Kittitas County. Following a dramatic job loss (down 4.5 percent) during the 2009 recession; a one-year “growth spurt” in 2010 (up 2.6 percent); and the three lackluster years of 2011 (up 0.3 percent), 2012 (down 0.3 percent), and 2013 (down 0.2 percent); nonfarm employment in 2014 averaged 15,220, a 370-job and 2.5-percent upturn over the 14,850 jobs tallied in 2013. Nonfarm growth during 2014 was particularly strong in state and local government education (up 190 jobs and 4.8 percent) and in construction (up 110 jobs and 15.5 percent). Statewide, the labor market saw nonfarm employment rise by 2.5 percent in 2014, the fourth year of the statewide recovery. This 2.5-percent upturn was the fastest job growth rate in seven years (since the 2.6 percent expansion in 2007). Washington’s economy generated 74,200 new jobs. Employment averaged 3,056,900.
  • In 2015 – The local economy provided 730 new nonfarm jobs, an average annual increase of 4.8 percent, more robust than the state’s 2.9 percent job growth rate. Kittitas County’s state and local government education sector (up 420 jobs), leisure and hospitality (up 130 jobs) and construction (up 80 jobs) fared particularly well. Only one sector retrenched during 2015, and that was manufacturing which netted 20 fewer jobs in 2015 (540 jobs) than in 2014 (560 jobs). Statewide, the nonfarm labor market saw employment rise by 2.9 percent. The nonfarm economy generated 88,800 new jobs and employment averaged 3,145,600. This was the fifth consecutive year of job growth in Washington.
  • In 2016 – Nonfarm employment countywide in 2016 averaged 16,480, a 530-job and 3.3-percent upturn over the 15,950 jobs tallied in 2015. This average annual increase of 3.3 percent was slightly more robust than the state’s 3.1 percent job growth rate and was the third consecutive year of economic recovery in Kittitas County since the recent recession. Job growth during 2016 was particularly strong in state and local government education (up 260 jobs and 5.7 percent), in leisure and hospitality (up 80 jobs and 3.0 percent) and in retail trade (up 70 jobs and 4.2 percent). Even manufacturing posted a modest upturn as this industry regained the 20 jobs lost during 2015, by rising from 540 (in 2015) back to an average annual employment level of 560 (in 2016).  Statewide, the labor market saw nonfarm employment rise by 3.1 percent in 2016, the sixth year of the statewide recovery. Washington’s economy generated 96,600 new jobs. Total nonfarm employment averaged 3,242,300.

Analysis using QCEW data:

The North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) is an industry classification system that groups businesses/organizations into categories or sectors based on the activities in which they are primarily engaged. There are 19 private sectors and three government sectors (for a total of 22 sectors) at the 2-digit NAICS code level, within each county-level economy. One can observe much about the structure of a county’s economy by quantifying and comparing the number of jobs and the percentage of jobs in these sectors by using annual average Quarterly Census of Employment and Wage (QCEW) data. The most recent average annual employment data available for Kittitas County are for 2016 and these data show:

The top five Kittitas County sectors in 2016 in terms of employment were:

 Sector Number of jobs Share of employment
 1. Accommodation and food services 2,612  18.1% 
 2. Local government 2,212  15.4% 
 3. Retail trade 1,746  12.1% 
 4. State government 1,525  10.6% 
 5. Health Services 1,250  8.7% 
 All other industries 5,055  35.1% 
 Total covered employment 14,400  100% 

Approximately 64.9 percent of all jobs in Kittitas County were in five, two-digit NAICS industries or sectors (i.e., accommodation and food services, local government, retail trade, state government and health services). A comparison of the top five sectors that provided the most jobs in Kittitas County in 2016 with the sectors that produced the highest payrolls follows:

  • Accommodation and food services (primarily hotels and restaurants) provided 18.1 percent of all jobs countywide but only 8.7 percent of total payroll or wages – indicating that many of these jobs are part-time. The percent of total covered employment in Kittitas County in accommodation and food services is extremely high. For example, in neighboring Yakima County only 5.6 percent of total covered employment is in the accommodation and food services sector. This indicates the importance of tourism and the large number of CWU students working part-time work in Kittitas County’s accommodation and food services businesses.
  • Local government had 15.4 percent of all jobs, but 18.4 percent of wages during 2016. This includes Kittitas Valley Hospital (KVH), local public schools, police and fire departments, etc.
  • State government provided 10.6 percent of all jobs countywide, but 20.6 percent of total payroll or wages. Hence, over one in every five dollars of earned wage income countywide comes from state government employment (of which CWU is a major employer).

If one analyzes employment changes in Kittitas County in the past twelve years (i.e. from 2004 to 2016) using Washington State Employment Security Department’s annual average Quarterly Census of Employment and Wage (QCEW) data one observes that total covered employment increased from 12,494 in 2004 to 14,400 in 2016, a 1,906 job and 15.3 percent expansion. Of the 22 NAICS sectors mentioned earlier, the sector that added the most jobs during this period was NAICS 72 (accommodation and food services). It provided 1,572 jobs in 2004 versus 2,612 jobs twelve years later (in 2016) equating to a 1,040-job and 66.2-percent expansion. Many of these jobs are at local hotels and restaurants.  Accommodation and food services accounted for 54.6 percent all covered jobs added (from all 22 NAICS sectors in Kittitas County) between 2004 and 2016. Looking at these data, it is safe to say that tourism is extremely important to the Kittitas County labor market.  Conversely, state government (which includes jobs at Central Washington University or CWU) decreased from 1,964 in 2004 to 1,525 in 2016, a 439 job and 22.4 percent contraction during this twelve-year period.

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:

The two largest jobholder age groups in Kittitas County were the 55-years and over and the 25-34 year old categories. These two categories accounted for 22.7 percent and 20.9 percent of employment in 2016. A close third was the 45-to-54 year old group, at 18.8 percent.

In 2016, women held 49.5 percent of all jobs in Kittitas County. However, there were substantial differences in gender dominance by industry.

  • Male-dominated industries included transportation and warehousing (83.6 percent), construction (83.3 percent) and utilities (75.8 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (76.4 percent), finance and insurance (71.1 percent) and educational services (61.9 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 2016, there were 14,400 covered employment jobs (which includes the agricultural industry) in Kittitas County, based on revised figures. The total payroll for 2016 was approximately $561.1 billion. The average annual wage was $38,968 or 65.9 percent of the state average of $59,090.

The top five Kittitas County industries in 2016 in terms of payrolls were:

 Sector Payroll Share of payrolls
 1. State government $115,485,088  20.6% 
 2. Local government $103,082,721  18.4% 
 3. Accommodation and food services $48,607,294  8.7% 
 4. Retail trade $45,399,106  8.1% 
 5. Construction $42,430,915  7.6% 
 All other industries $206,128,219  36.7% 
 Total covered payrolls $561,133,343  100% 

As shown in the table above, QCEW data showed that Kittitas County’s workers received $561.1 million in wages in calendar year 2016. Approximately 63.3 percent, over six in every ten dollars of wage income, was earned in five, two-digit NAICS industries or sectors (i.e., state government, local government, accommodation and food services, retail trade and construction). Looking at wages generated in the local economy, state government and local government are ranked first and second, respectively, in terms of payroll size.

Average annual wages in 2016 were highest in finance and insurance ($75,672), government ($58,652) and wholesale trade ($51,900). Conversely, average annual wages were lowest in arts, entertainment and recreation ($16,129), accommodation and food services ($18,609) and in real estate, rental, and leasing ($20,584).

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 personal income in Kittitas County was estimated at $39,157 in 2015, 75.4 percent of the state average ($51,898) and 81.4 percent of the U.S. average ($48,112). Kittitas County ranks 25th in the state (out of 39 counties) for per capita income.

Earnings as a percent of total personal income in 1975 made up 67 percent of total income of the typical Kittitas County resident, but by 2015 earned income was only 58 percent of total personal income – a substantial nine percentage-point drop during this 40-year period.

Investments as a proportion of county residents’ personal income have increased from 17 percent in 1974 to 22 percent in 2015 – up five percentage points in 40 years.

Government transfer payments as a proportion of county residents’ personal income have increased from 16 percent in 1975 to 20 percent in 2014 – up four percentage points during this timeframe.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts, the median household income in Kittitas County was $46,458 (in 2015 dollars) from 2011 to 2015. This was 76.1 percent of the statewide median household income ($61,062) and 86.2 percent of the national median household income of $53,889 during this timeframe.

Kittitas County’s poverty rate of 20.0 percent in the period 2011 to 2015 was much higher than the state’s rate of 11.3 percent and the nation’s rate of 12.7 percent, according to U.S Census Bureau QuickFacts. Relatively low student wages often increase poverty statistics in college-dominant counties such as Kittitas (where a major employer is Central Washington University or CWU).

(back to top)


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

Kittitas County’s population in 2016 was 44,866. The population grew 9.7 percent from April 1, 2010 through July 1, 2016, a bit faster than the state’s 8.4 percent growth rate during this timeframe.

The largest city in Kittitas County is Ellensburg, the county seat with an estimated population of 19,310 in 2016.

Population facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Kittitas County Washington state
 Population 2016 44,866  7,288,000 
 Population 2010 40,906  6,724,543 
 Percent change, 2010 to 2016 9.7%  8.4% 

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

In 2016, a slightly larger portion (15.5 percent) of Kittitas County’s population was 65 years and older compared to the state (14.8 percent).

The county had a lower proportion of its residents under the age of 18 (17.3 percent) in 2016 than the state (22.4 percent).

Females in 2016 made up 49.6 percent of the population, below that of the state at 50.0 percent.

Kittitas County is less ethnically diverse than the state and nation. In 2016, 91.7 percent of its residents were white, higher than the state (80.0 percent) and the nation (76.9 percent).


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Kittitas County Washington state
 Population by age, 2016
Under 5 years old 4.6%  6.2% 
Under 18 years old 17.3%  22.4% 
65 years and older 15.5%  14.8% 
 Females, 2016 49.6%  50.0% 
 Race/ethnicity, 2016
White 91.7%  80.0% 
Black 1.2%  4.1% 
American Indian, Alaskan Native 1.3%  1.9% 
Asian, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander 2.5%  9.4% 
Hispanic or Latino, any race 8.8%  12.4% 

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Slightly more Kittitas County residents age 25 and older (90.8 percent) were high school graduates compared to the state (90.4 percent) and the nation (86.7 percent) over the period of 2011 to 2015.

Those with a bachelor’s degree or higher made up 33.6 percent of Kittitas County residents age 25 and older, which compares favorably with 32.9 percent of state residents and 29.8 percent of U.S. residents over the same period. Having a major university (Central Washington University) in the county accounts for the higher adult population educational levels.

(back to top)


Useful links

(back to top)