Employment Trends in King County
King County is home to a number of large and well-known public and private companies.
Many large, nationally-known corporations are headquartered in King County. Within the Fortune 500 list of largest corporations in the United States, eight companies are based in King County and reveal the diversity of the region’s employment market. Included in the list are large retailers Costco and Nordstrom, technology giants Amazon and Microsoft, coffee company Starbucks, truck manufacturer Paccar, global logistics company Expeditors International, and forest products company Weyerhaeuser.
Looking beyond the Fortune 500 requirements of local headquarters and significant revenues, other major King County employers include Boeing, the University of Washington, and local and regional government. Boeing employs around 58,800 in the state of Washington, and Renton is the headquarters of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. In King County, large and well-established companies exist in nearly every sector of the labor market.
The industry composition in King County is similar to many of our peers, with a few notable exceptions.
When evaluating employment in King County, it is useful to compare our measures to those of our “peer counties.” Peer counties are those in the US with similar sized populations and employment markets. The nine peer counties used for our comparison purposes are Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties in California, Dallas and Harris counties in Texas, Cook County in Illinois, Maricopa County in Arizona, Miami-Dade County in Florida, and New York County. The industry composition is broadly similar among the peer counties and King County, with trade, transportation, and utilities representing the largest sector in nearly all, and professional and business services being the second largest. A few logical exceptions exist; for example, New York County has an outsized financial services sector relative to its peers and a small proportion of manufacturing jobs. Harris County, which includes Houston and its large energy exploration and oil field services companies, has a far higher proportion of natural resources and mining employment than its peers.
King County is notable for its relatively large information sector, which includes software publishing and telecommunications. While the actual number of information employees in King County is dwarfed by the numbers in peer counties New York and Los Angeles, information represents a far higher proportion of total employment within King County.
Employment Growth overall and within major sectors of the King County economy has outpaced most of our peer counties in the U.S.
In terms of overall employment growth, King County has fared better than most of its peers and the United States overall since 2001. Total employment grew by 17.9% in King County from 2001 to 2020, despite three recessions that significantly impacted employment levels. That compares with 7.3% average growth in the US as a whole and 4.9% in our peer counties. Only Harris County (Houston) and Maricopa County (Phoenix) grew at a faster rate.
King County’s strength in employment growth relative to its peers can be credited in part to the growth trends in three sectors: information, manufacturing, and professional and business services. Information employment in King County grew 77.3% from 2001 to 2020, and King County was one of only two counties that experienced growth in this sector over the time period. Information employment includes rapidly expanding sectors like software publishing, as well as shrinking markets such as publishing of newspapers and other print media.
Manufacturing employment has also shrunk considerably since 2001, declining 26.3% in the United States. The peer counties have also experienced large declines. While manufacturing employment in King County has declined as well, it has not seen as large of a drop as many of its peers. Much of the manufacturing jobs in King County are linked to Boeing and aerospace, which have weathered the recessions well and provide jobs that are not easily moved to cheaper overseas labor markets(1).
Employment in professional and business services has grown rapidly in the US and in most of the peer counties. Service employment in King County grew 35.5% over that time period, bested only by Harris County in Texas.
Unemployment in King County has tended to be lower than its peer counties and the United States as a whole.
Another measure of the strength of King County employment relative to its peers is the unemployment rate. From 2001 to 2021, the unemployment rate in King County tended to follow the general pattern of the United States as a whole, as well as its peer counties. During the 2001 recession, which hit King County particularly hard, unemployment in King County was slightly higher than both its peers and the US. Since then, however, unemployment in King County has tended to be lower than the United States and the peer counties, including throughout the COVID-19-related recession of 2020.
After a long period of recovery following the Great Recession of 2007-2009, unemployment rates returned to below pre-Recession levels. The recession of 2020 related to the COVID-19 pandemic had an immediate and dramatic impact on global employment. In the US and King County, unemployment rates are now near pre-pandemic levels. The federal government calculates the “U-6” unemployment rate that measures not only traditional unemployment (individuals who are out of work and actively seeking employment), but also “all persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part time for economic reasons.” Marginally attached workers are those who are neither working nor actively seeking employment, but who remain willing and able to work or have looked for work within the past year. Those employed part-time for economic reasons are workers who work part-time but would prefer to work full time. In the first years of the recovery after the Great Recession, the spread between the U-3 and the U-6 rate was considerably higher than it was pre-recession or even during the recession of 2001-2002. This indicates that while employment appeared to have recovered, a high proportion of workers were not fully employed. This occurred again during the pandemic-related recession of 2020. This spread has since tightened and is now at pre-pandemic levels.
List of Fortune 500 companies taken from the Fortune Magazine website.
Data for employment growth in King County, peer counties, and the United States, both overall and by sector, taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Data for unemployment rates taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Current Population Survey.