Thurston County profile

Washington state map with Thurston county highlightedby Jim Vleming, regional labor economist - updated February 2020

Overview | Geographic facts | Outlook | Labor force and unemployment | Industry employment | Wages and Income | Population | Useful linksPDF Profile copy 


Regional context

Thurston County is located on the southern end of Puget Sound in Western Washington, referred to as the South Sound. It is the seventh smallest county in the state, but the sixth most populous with 349.4 people per square mile.

Thurston County was carved out of Lewis County in 1852, named after Samuel R. Thurston, the first delegate to Congress from the Oregon Territory, which later became Washington. The county seat is Olympia, the state capital and the largest city in the county. In 1851, Olympia became the port of entry for Puget Sound. A year later, it became the county seat.

Native Americans date back to roughly 3,000 years ago. Nisqually and Squaxon tribes established themselves in this area. In 1833, the first Europeans settled in the area, and in 1845, the first white American settlers arrived.

Local economy

Lumber, coal and sandstone mining were the dominant sources of industry in 19th century Thurston County, and remained so into the 1920s. In 1896, Leopold Schmidt established a brewery that was a significant industry in Tumwater. It operated until Miller closed it in 2003.

State government began to increase its employment share when the state capitol was completed in 1927. By the 1950s, state government surpassed lumber employment. Logging mills were closed in the 1960s. Thurston County then grew rapidly over the decades, fueled by employment in state government and trade. Tribal casinos also took off during this time.

The local economy continues to be dependent upon government employment, as 32.3 percent of all nonfarm employment can be attributed to federal, state and local government jobs in 2019. Looking back to 2010, government employment has declined by 2.0 percent, while private sector employment increased by 16.5 percent as a share of total county employment.

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Geographic facts

Thurston County Rank in state
 Land area, 2010 (square miles) 721.96  32 
 People per square mile, 2010 349.4 

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)


The year 2019 continued the run of positive news for the Thurston County economy. The unemployment rate has remained low and nonfarm payrolls expanded consistently over the year.

Government employment in the county has remained steady and strong with no reason to see this trend not continuing into 2020. Ground has been broken on many new projects, including a craft brewing and retail sector in Tumwater, which will include craft brewing space, distillery space and South Puget Sound Community College classrooms, as it launches new craft brewing and distillery classes. New hotels have been built or renovated and rooms are being filled on a regular basis. New residential downtown projects have sprouted up in place of vacant lots and long abandoned office buildings. The general tone of this data supports a belief in continued prosperity as we march into 2020.

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Labor force and unemployment

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

The average annual unemployment rate in the county has dropped every year since 2011, when the rate was 9.0 percent. In 2019, the preliminary rate averaged 5.0 percent.

In 2019, there were on average 7,210 county residents unemployed as 136,555 received paychecks. That compares to 6,553 unemployed in 2018 with 131,144 at work. The civilian labor force has been increasing since 2013, demonstrating a continued confidence in the local labor market.

(Source: Employment Security Department, LMEA)

Industry employment

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

Thurston County average annual nonfarm employment totaled above 100,000 jobs from 2007 through 2009 before dropping below that level in 2010 through 2012. In 2019, preliminary employment in nonfarm categories averaged 121,700 jobs. This is 1,600 jobs above the 2018 average.

Since the year 2000, nonfarm payrolls in the county have expanded by an average annual rate of 1.8 percent. This compares favorably to the state (1.2 percent) and the nation (0.7 percent) over the same period.

Government is by far and away the largest employer, with 39,200 jobs in 2019. Retail trade and professional business services also provided large numbers of jobs.

For historical industry employment data, contact an economist.

(Source: Employment Security Department, LMEA)

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Industry employment by age and gender

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.

Thurston County highlights:

In 2018, the two largest employed age categories were those 35 to 44 years old with 22.4 percent of the jobs, and those 55 and older with 24.6 percent of the jobs.

Men held 46.7 percent of the jobs in the county and women held 53.3 percent of jobs in 2018.

  • Male-dominated industries included mining (80.7 percent), construction (84.0 percent), and transportation and warehousing (75.3 percent).
  • Female-dominated industries included healthcare and social assistance (78.3 percent), education (68.1 percent), and finance and insurance (65.1 percent).

Source: The Local Employment Dynamics

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Wages and income

In 2018, there were 117,012 covered employment jobs in Thurston County. The total payroll for 2018 was nearly $6.1 billion dollars.

In 2018, the average annual wage was $51,942, compared to the state average of $66,156.

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 Thurston County in 2018 was $51,684 compared to the state at $62,026, and the nation at $54,446. It ranks 11th for per capita income in Washington state.

Median household income in 2018 was $72,703, lower than that of the state ($74,073) but higher than the nation ($61,937), according to the U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts.

The percent of the county’s population below the official poverty rate in 2018 was 8.4 percent compared to the state’s rate of 10.3 percent and the nation’s at 13.1 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts. The state and national rates are not directly comparable to the county rate because they each use different data sources.

(Source: Employment Security Department, LMEA; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; Bureau of Economic Analysis; U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey)

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Thurston County’s estimated population in April 2018 was 286,419. The population of the county at the 2010 census was 252,260.

The largest city in the county is Olympia followed by Lacey and Tumwater.

(Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis; Washington State Office of Financial Management)

Population facts

Thurston County Washington state
 Population 2018 286,419  7,535,591
 Population 2010 252,260  6,724,540 
 Percent change, 2010 to 2018 13.5%  12.1% 

Age, gender and ethnicity

Thurston County had an older population than the state in 2018. Thurston County’s population of those aged 65 and older was 17.3 percent compared to the state’s 15.4 percent.

Those under 18 years old were 21.4 percent of the county population, slightly less than that of the state’s 22.1 percent. Those under five years old made up 5.8 percent of Thurston County’s population compared to the state’s 6.1 percent.

Thurston County showed somewhat less diversity in 2018 than the state in racial/ethnic categories, with whites making up 81.8 percent of its population compared to 78.9 percent of the state’s population. There was 5.6 percent of the county’s population reporting two or more races in 2018 compared to 4.8 percent at the state level. The county’s population had slightly more native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders (1.0 percent) than the state (0.8 percent).

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Thurston County Washington state
 Population by age, 2018
Under 5 years old 5.8%  6.1% 
Under 18 years old 21.4%  22.1% 
65 years and older 17.3%  15.4% 
 Females, 2018 51.1%  50.0% 
 Race/ethnicity, 2018
White 81.8%  78.9% 
Black 3.6%  4.3% 
American Indian, Alaskan Native 1.8%  1.9% 
Asian, Native Hawaiian, other Pacific Islander 7.2%  10.1% 
Hispanic or Latino, any race 9.2%  12.9% 

Educational attainment

Most Thurston County residents age 25 and older (94.0 percent) were high school graduates, which compares favorably with 91.1 percent of Washington state’s residents and 87.7 percent of U.S. residents in the period covering 2018.

Those with a bachelor’s degree or higher made up 35.7 percent of Thurston County residents age 25 and older compared to 35.3 percent of state residents and 31.5 percent of U.S. residents during the same period.

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts)


Useful links

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