San Juan County profile

Washington state map with San Juan county highlightedby Anneliese Vance-Sherman, Ph.D., 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

San Juan County, located in northwest Washington state includes four large islands: San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw and hundreds of smaller islands, reefs and rocks. About 20 islands are inhabited. San Juan County is the smallest county in Washington by total landmass.

San Juan County is located in the Salish Sea to the west of Skagit and Whatcom counties and east of lower Vancouver Island, Canada. The islands are spectacularly scenic. Consequently, the archipelago is a popular tourism destination. Tourists arrive via ferry, private boat and float plane throughout the year. The county has in turn attracted many retirees. The San Juan Islands are regularly included on lists of America’s most desirable places to live. Today, tourism-related industries and retirement communities form the economic base of the San Juan County economy.

Local economy

The Lummi and Salish peoples have called the San Juan Islands home for thousands of years. Early European settlements were established by the British Hudson Bay Company in the 1850s (although British and Spanish adventurers had explored the islands as early as the 1700s). The San Juan Islands were a disputed territory between Canada and the United States, which led to the short-lived Pig War of 1859 and a thirteen-year process to resolve the international boundary between British-controlled Canada and the United States. The German Kaiser was asked to arbitrate and he decided in favor of the Americans in 1872.

Fishing and farming formed the economic mainstay for most inhabitants until the already well-established tourism economy took off in the 1970s. However, some more colorful parts of the economic history of the San Juan includes smuggling, rum running and trade and manufacturing of other illicit commodities.

Due to a large tourism component in the economy, employment levels are highly seasonal. Using a 10-year average from 2007 through 2017, the following pattern emerges – peak private nonfarm employment occurs each summer (usually August), with an average gain of 1,721 jobs (36 percent) from the January low point of the jobs cycle. As of August 2017 (preliminary), peak employment for 2017 reached 6,650, with a typical increase of 35 percent over January.

Similar to the national economy, San Juan County’s largest job-providing sector is private services, accounting for about 70 percent of all nonfarm jobs. In 2016 the largest industry in terms of average annual employment was leisure and hospitality. This is consistent with the county’s orientation toward tourism. In 2016, leisure and hospitality hosted an average of 1,480 jobs or 26 percent. Other large industries include trade, transportation and utilities—which includes retail trade (17 percent), government (15 percent), construction (12 percent) and education and health services (11 percent).

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Geographic facts

(Source: Washington State Office of Financial Management)

San Juan County Rank in state
 Land area, 2010 (square miles) 173.9  39 
 Persons per square mile, 2017 94.93  11 

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On an annual average basis, from 2008 to 2010, Washington state and the United States each lost an estimated 5 percent of their respective employment bases. San Juan County lost about 11 percent of total nonfarm jobs from 2008 to 2013. In short, employment losses were deeper and the downfall was longer than for either the nation or the state. The recovery has also been slow and tentative. After reaching an employment low, jobs began to rebound in 2012 and then suffered another short-term setback in 2013. Losses in 2013 were deepest in the government sector. Since 2013, average annual growth has been observed each year.  Annual average nonfarm employment in 2016 was 5,600, about 2.2 percent higher than observed in 2015. This is still 6 percent below pre-recession levels and close to the levels of employment observed in 2004.

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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.

The dynamics of the labor force in San Juan County are very seasonal, with peak unemployment rates occurring each year in the winter months and lowest unemployment rates reported each summer during the peak tourism season. The divergence between annual high and low unemployment rates increased during the recession.

During the recent period of recession and recovery, the peak unemployment rate (9.9 percent) was reached in January 2010. The highest average annual unemployment rate was 7.3 percent, also in 2010. By 2016, the average annual unemployment rate fell to 4.8 percent. The unemployment rate in August 2017 (preliminary) was 2.9 percent.

San Juan County’s labor force follows the same seasonal trend described above. In a highly-seasonal tourism-driven economy, the labor force swells during the summer months and contracts during off-peak seasons. The labor force expanded by 1,718 from a winter low of 7,511 in January 2017 to the peak to date for this year: 9,229 in July 2017.

The average annual labor force in 2016 was 7,902. Within this estimate, 7,521 San Juan County residents were employed and 381 were actively looking for work.

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Industry employment

(Source: Employment Security Department)

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

San Juan County averaged 5,600 nonfarm jobs in 2016, compared to 5,480 in 2015 – a year-over-year recovery of 120 jobs or 2.2 percent. The first eight months of 2017 showed very similar employment levels as those observed in 2016, which is not surprising given the highly-seasonal nature of the San Juan economy. We will have to wait until after the peak tourism season to accurately assess the progress of San Juan County’s recovery to date. The San Juan job market has taken longer than the state or the nation to send out initial green shoots. At this point, the recovery is still fragile and highly dependent on the demand for travel to the San Juan Islands over summer holidays.

  • San Juan County’s goods-producing industries are dominated by natural resources, mining and construction. Nationally and locally, the signature of this recession was an exceptionally hard-hit construction industry; San Juan County was no exception. The county’s goods-producing sector shed an estimated 41 percent of all jobs from 2008 to 2013 and only began to show signs of recovery in 2014. From 2013 to 2016, construction added 100 jobs and manufacturing remained unchanged after experiencing an 18 percent drop during the same time period.
  • Service-providing employment in San Juan County hit its lowest point in 2011, after losing about 7 percent of jobs counted in 2008. From 2011 to 2016, Service sector employment expanded by 300 jobs. Annual gains were observed in most service-sector industries detailed in the nonfarm report, with the exception of information and financial activities (down 20) and education and health services which remained unchanged over the year.

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, San Juan County’s labor market was characterized by a relatively older age profile than the state. Statewide, 22.2 percent of the workforce was age 55 or older. Compare with San Juan County where 32.0 percent of the workforce was age 55 or older. All other age categories are proportionally under-represented relative to the statewide labor force. This is largely a reflection of migration and settlement patterns; San Juan County is well known as a retirement destination.

Males held 46.6 percent of jobs and females held 53.4 percent of San Juan County jobs in 2016.

  • Top male-dominated industries in 2016 included construction (81.8 percent), utilities (64.9 percent) and transportation and warehousing (64.6 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries in 2016 included healthcare and social assistance (81.2 percent), finance and insurance (75.5 percent), and management of companies and enterprises (73.6 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 2016, San Juan County averaged 5,687 jobs covered by unemployment insurance, with a total payroll of $192.7 million dollars.
  • The county’s 2016 average annual wage was $33,890.
  • San Juan County’s median hourly wage was $20.97, lower than the state median of $23.91.
    • Note that the average annual wage of $33,890 is a direct calculation of the dollars paid to workers over the course of the full year. San Juan County ranks second among counties statewide for the average annual wage. Median hourly wage, by comparison, divides wages distributed by hours worked (rather than by worker). Together, these data points indicate that wages paid are not necessarily low, but they are largely part time and / or seasonal.

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, per capita personal income in San Juan County ($66,255) was well above both state ($51,898) and U.S. ($48,112) averages. It is worth noting that personal income includes all types of income, not limited to earned wages. This is particularly important to recognize in the case of San Juan County, as a large portion of the residents are retired and collect non-wage income.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, San Juan County’s median household income was $66,786; below the state ($74,025) but slightly above U.S. ($66,011) medians over the period 2011 to 2015. A distribution of households by income show that San Juan County is over-represented relative to the state and nation for households with incomes ranging between $20,000 and $49,999, and among households with incomes exceeding $200,000 per year.

Over the 2011 to 2015 period, 11.6 percent of the resident population was living below the official poverty line. The statewide average was higher at 13.3 percent, while the national average stood at 15.5 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Children living in San Juan County were more likely than the resident population as a whole to live in poverty (24.3 percent).

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(Source: Washington State Office of Financial Management)

The estimated resident population of San Juan County was 16,510 for 2017. Its total growth from 2007 to 2017 was 6.6 percent, lower than the 10.6 percent growth rate observed for the state over the same period.

The only incorporated city in San Juan County is Friday Harbor (population 2,255 in 2017), up 6.8 percent in 10 years.

Population facts

(Source: Washington State Office of Financial Management)

San Juan County Washington state
 Population 2017 16,510  7,218,759 
 Population 2007 15,483  6,525,093 
 Percent change, 2007 to 2017 6.6%  10.6% 

Age, gender and ethnicity

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Overall, San Juan County has considerably more individuals age 65 and older (31.8 percent) compared to 14.8 percent statewide. It also has a lower percentage of those under 18 (13.5 percent) compared to 22.4 percent statewide.

In 2016, females made up 51.5 percent of the estimated population.

San Juan County was less diverse than Washington state in terms of race and ethnicity, with smaller proportions of all racial or ethnic minorities compared to the state. About 94 percent of its population was white in 2016.


(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

San Juan County Washington state
 Population by age, 2016
Under 5 years old 2.9%  6.2% 
Under 18 years old 13.5%  22.4% 
65 years and older 31.8%  14.8% 
 Females, 2016 51.5%  50.0% 
 Race/ethnicity, 2016
White 94.3%  80.3% 
Black 0.7%  4.1% 
American Indian, Alaskan Native 0.9%  1.9% 
Asian, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander 1.5%  9.4% 
Hispanic or Latino, any race 6.1%  12.4% 

Educational attainment

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Generally speaking, the resident population of San Juan County is well-educated.

  • In the period 2011-2015, 95.4 percent of San Juan County residents aged 25 and up had at least a high school education. Statewide, 90.4 percent of all residents was estimated to have an equivalent educational level.
  • In San Juan County, 46.6 percent of the resident population aged 25 and up have earned a bachelor’s degrees or attained a higher level of formal education. Statewide, 32.9 percent of the adult population have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

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Useful links

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