Kittitas County profile

by Don Meseck, regional labor economist - updated September 2016

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


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 size. In 2015, state government provided 20.3 percent, and local government accounted for 18.3 percent, of total covered wages in Kittitas County.

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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 

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The Kittitas County economy has generally been on a recovery path since the substantial 4.5 percent, and 680-job downturn in nonfarm employment during calendar year 2009. During the past six years (inclusive), from 2010 through 2015, average annual nonfarm employment has expanded in four years with a modest two-year slump in calendar years 2012 and 2013 (see the “Industry Employment” section of this report).

Between 2014 and 2015, Kittitas County's economy provided 730 new nonfarm jobs as total nonfarm employment rose from 15,220 in 2014 to 15,950 in 2015, an average annual increase of 4.8 percent. This was more robust than the state’s 2.8 percent job growth rate during this timeframe. Current monthly WA-QB data shows that the local economy has grown year over year for the past 23 months (October 2014 through August 2016). Between the Augusts of 2015 and 2016, the number of nonfarm jobs rose strongly, up 4.2 percent, from 14,830 to 15,450 respectively.

Official, long-term (i.e. ten-year) nonfarm employment projections produced by the Employment Security Department are for a 1.4 percent average annual growth rate from 2014-2024 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.

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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.

Unemployment rates in Kittitas County were consistent in the four-year period from 2005 to 2008 (before the recession). Rates ranged from a low of 4.8 percent in 2007 to “highs” of 5.9 percent in 2005 and 2008. During the recent recession, unemployment rates in Kittitas County rose to 9.1 percent in 2009 and 9.8 percent in 2010. Average annual unemployment rates have been on the decline ever since. The unemployment rate fell to 9.2 percent in 2011, to 8.7 percent in 2012, to 7.8 percent in 2013, to 6.9 percent in 2014 and to 6.1 percent in 2015.

Kittitas County averaged 20,176 residents in the labor force 2014 and 20,816 in 2015, a 3.2 percent expansion. The local labor force has posted year-over-year growth for the past nine months (December 2014 through August 2016) with the growth pace exceeding the state's in each of the past five months. Hence, the good news was that, this August, 20,847 Kittitas County residents were in the labor force versus 19,560 in August of 2015, equating to 1,287 more residents in the CLF - a 6.6 percent upturn. On the downside, during this timeframe the number of unemployed increased by 81, with 1,137 residents out of work in August 2015 versus 1,218 in August 2016 - a 7.1 percent upturn. The result was that the unemployment rate in Kittitas County stabilized at 5.8 percent between the Augusts of 2015 and 2016.

Washington's Civilian Labor Force (CLF) expanded by 50,156 residents (a 1.4 percent upturn) from 2014 to 2015. The state’s labor force has increased, year over year, for the past 32 months (January 2014 through August 2016). In August 2016, Washington’s CLF tallied 3,645,713 residents versus 3,543,814 in August 2015 equating to 101,899 more Washingtonians in the labor force (up 2.9 percent).

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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 an average annual job loss of 4.5 percent (down 680 jobs) but in 2010 the local nonfarm market rebounded with a 2.6 percent increase in employment (up 380 jobs) - thanks to hiring at Central Washington University or CWU (the County’s largest employer). A synopsis of average annual local nonfarm employment trends in Kittitas County from 2009 through 2015 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). 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 virtually stagnated. Total nonfarm employment inched upwards a marginal 0.1 percent, from 14,880 jobs in 2012 to 14,900 in 2013. Meanwhile, across the state in 2013, the total nonfarm growth rate was 2.3 percent as the economy generated 66,600 new jobs and employment averaged 2,985,900.
  • In 2014 – This was a good year for the Kittitas County economy. Nonfarm employment averaged 15,270, a 370-job and 2.5-percent upturn over the 14,900 jobs tallied in 2013. Nonfarm growth was particularly strong in state and local government education (up 190) and in construction (up 110). Statewide, the labor market saw nonfarm employment rise by 2.5 percent, the best growth rate in seven years (since the 2.6 percent expansion in 2007). The economy generated 73,700 new jobs. Employment averaged 3,059,600.
  • In 2015 – The local economy provided 770 new nonfarm jobs, an average annual increase of 4.6 percent, more robust than the state’s 2.8 percent job growth rate. Kittitas County’s state and local government education sector (up 400 jobs), leisure and hospitality (up 100 jobs) and retail trade (up 100 jobs) fared well. Only one sector retrenched during this past year, and that was manufacturing which netted 40 fewer jobs in 2015 (520 jobs) than in 2014 (560 jobs). Statewide, the nonfarm labor market saw employment rise by 2.8 percent. The nonfarm economy generated 86,100 new jobs and employment averaged 3,145,700. This was the fifth consecutive year of job growth in Washington (i.e., 1.3 percent in 2011, 1.6 percent in 2012, 2.3 percent in 2013, 2.5 percent in 2014 and 2.8 percent in 2015).

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 2015 and these data show:

The top five Kittitas County sectors in 2015 in terms of employment were:

 Sector Number of jobs Share of employment
 1. Accommodation and food services 2,548  18.2% 
 2. Local government 2,156  15.4% 
 3. Retail trade 1,664  11.9% 
 4. State government 1,481  10.6% 
 5. Health Services 1,217  8.7% 
 All other industries 4,935  35.2% 
 Total covered employment 14,001  100% 

Approximately 64.8 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 2015 with the sectors that produced the highest payrolls follows:

  • Accommodation and food services (primarily hotels and restaurants) provided 18.2 percent of all jobs countywide but only 8.7 percent of total payroll or wages – indicating that many of these jobs are part-time. This is an extremely high ratio/percentage. For example, neighboring Yakima County has only 5.3 percent of total covered employment 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 18.3 percent of wages. 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 20.3 percent of total payroll or wages. Hence, one could generalize that one in every five dollars of earned wage income 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, inclusive (2004-2015), 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 14,001 in 2015, a 1,507 job and 12.1 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 2,548 jobs eleven years later (in 2015) equating to a 976-job and 62.1-percent expansion. Hence, one sector (accommodation and food services) accounted for 64.8 percent all covered jobs gained in Kittitas County between 2004 and 2015. Conversely, state government (which includes jobs at Central Washington University or CWU) decreased from 1,964 in 2004 to 1,481 in 2014, a 480 job and 24.6 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 22.8 percent and 20.4 percent of employment in 2015. A close third was the 45-to-54 year old group, at 19.8 percent.

In 2015, women held 50.2 percent of all jobs in Kittitas County. However, there were substantial differences in gender dominance by industry.

  • Male-dominated industries included transportation and warehousing (86.1 percent), construction (83.7 percent) and utilities (73.9 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (76.4 percent), finance and insurance (71.7 percent) and educational services (61.6 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 2015, there were 14,001 covered employment jobs in Kittitas County, based on revised figures. The total payroll for 2015 was approximately $524.5 billion. The average annual wage was $37,460 or 66.1 percent of the state average of $56,642.

The top five Kittitas County industries in 2015 in terms of payrolls were:

 Sector Payroll Share of payrolls
 1. State government $106,230,926  20.3% 
 2. Local government $95,758,344  18.3% 
 3. Accommodation and food services $48,866,988  8.7% 
 4. Retail trade $41,519,835  7.9% 
 5. Construction $38,400,183  7.3% 
 All other industries $196,702,456  37.5% 
 Total covered payrolls $524,478,732  100% 

As shown in the table above, QCEW data showed that Kittitas County’s workers received $524.5 million in wages in calendar year 2015. Approximately 62.5 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. In 2015, state government provided 20.3 percent, and local government accounted for 18.3 percent, of total covered wages in Kittitas County. It is also interesting to note that although accommodation and food services (primarily hotels and restaurants) tallied 18.2 percent of all jobs, this industry provided only 8.7 percent of the payroll countywide. Why? Many jobs at hotels and restaurants are part-time.

Average annual wages in 2015 were highest in finance and insurance ($67,999), government ($55,826) and wholesale trade ($50,918). Conversely, average annual wages were lowest in arts, entertainment and recreation ($16,289), accommodation and food services ($17,996) and in real estate, rental, and leasing ($21,208).

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 Kittitas County was estimated at $37,761 in 2014, 76.1 percent of the state average ($49,610) and 82.0 percent of the U.S. average ($46,049). Kittitas County ranks 24th in the state (out of 39 counties) for per capita income.

Earnings as a percent of total personal income in 1974 made up 69 percent of total income of the typical Kittitas County resident, but by 2014 earned income was only 56 percent of total personal income – a substantial 13-point drop during this 40-year period.

Investments as a proportion of county residents’ personal income have increased from 17 percent in 1974 to 23 percent in 2014.

Government transfer payments as a proportion of county residents’ personal income have increased from 15 percent in 1974 to 20 percent in 2014.

Investments as a proportion of county residents’ personal income have increased from 17 percent in 1974 to 23 percent in 2014.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts, the median household income in Kittitas County was $45,406 in the period 2010 to 2014. This was less the statewide median household income of $60,294 and the national median income of $53,482 during the same period.

Kittitas County’s poverty rate of 18.6 percent in the period 2010 to 2014 was much higher than the state’s rate of 13.2 percent and the nation’s rate of 14.8 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).

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(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

Kittitas County’s population in 2014 was 43,269. The population grew 5.8 percent from April 1, 2010 through July 1, 2015, a bit slower than the state’s 6.6 percent growth rate during this timeframe.

The largest city in Kittitas County is Ellensburg, the county seat with an estimated population of 18,810 in 2015.

Population facts

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Kittitas County Washington state
 Population 2015 43,269  7,170,351 
 Population 2010 40,909  6,724,543 
 Percent change, 2010 to 2015 5.8%  6.6% 

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

In 2015, a slightly larger portion (15.1 percent) of Kittitas County’s population was 65 years and older compared to the state (14.4 percent).

The county had a lower proportion of its residents under the age of 18 (17.8 percent) in 2015 than the state (22.5 percent).

Females in 2015 made up 49.7 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 2015, 91.8 percent of its residents were white, higher than the state (80.3 percent) and the nation (77.1 percent).


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Kittitas County Washington state
 Population by age, 2015
Under 5 years old 4.8%  6.2% 
Under 18 years old 17.8%  22.5% 
65 years and older 15.1%  14.4% 
 Females, 2015 49.7%  50.0% 
 Race/ethnicity, 2015
White 91.8%  80.3% 
Black 1.2%  4.1% 
American Indian, Alaskan Native 1.2%  1.9% 
Asian, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander 2.6%  9.1% 
Hispanic or Latino, any race 8.9%  12.2% 

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Slightly more Kittitas County residents age 25 and older (90.9 percent) were high school graduates compared to the state (90.2 percent) and the nation (86.3 percent) over the period of 2010 to 2014.

Those with a bachelor’s degree or higher made up 34.0 percent of Kittitas County residents age 25 and older, which compares favorably with 32.3 percent of state residents and 29.3 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.

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Useful links

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