Seattle is a city filled with big businesses and major companies. Several Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in and around the Emerald City, driving a healthy employment market and inviting new residents to move to the city - so much so that Seattle real estate has been one of the hottest markets in the country for a few years in a row.
But who are the top Seattle-area employers? While the Fortune 500 companies definitely make a showing, they're not the only ones at the top. Dependable companies that once seemed like a permanent part of the community (Washington Mutual, Seattle P-I) have disappeared. Others have exploded out of nowhere (like Microsoft and Starbucks 20 years ago). It may be that tomorrow’s big employer is tucked away in a third-story office in Belltown right now, or maybe in somebody’s garage in Renton.
But for the moment, the biggest employers in Seattle are major companies whose names are often known worldwide.
The biggest employers in the Seattle area:
With Boeing known for sometimes going through cycles of mass layoffs, it’s easy to forget that they are still far and away the state’s largest private employer with about 80,000 employees in the area (and more than 165,000 worldwide). While Seattle is no longer the Jet City of old, dependent entirely on aerospace (and thank goodness), Boeing is still an essential part of our economic landscape and community. And though a Boeing job may not offer cradle-to-the-grave security anymore, it’s still one of the best jobs in town with strong benefits and pay.
The Seattle area has a major military presence, largely due to JBLM located about an hour south of Seattle, just south of Tacoma. With 45,000 military and civilian employees working on base and others working offbase, JBLM has a major impact on the local employment scene (and the jobs offer some pretty solid benefits as well).
Microsoft – about 42,000 employees
Though the company was actually founded in New Mexico, Bill Gates quickly moved the company back to his home in the Puget Sound region and launched the great Seattle tech boom, which is still shaping the region today. Microsoft remains a powerful economic and political force in the region. Until people stop buying PCs, expect Microsoft’s dominance to continue.
With its largest campus in Seattle and two growing campuses in Bothell and Tacoma, the University of Washington is a major player in the Washington State employment scene. The UW’s national stature as a major research university is primarily the legacy of powerful senators Scoop Jackson and Warren Magnuson, who in the ‘60s and ‘70s secured huge rewards of federal investment in the school. Today, it’s considered one of the best value undergraduate educations in America, and boasts highly ranked medical, law and business schools as well as several Nobel Prize winners.
No company did as much in the ‘90s to push online shopping into the mainstream of America, showing that the experience could be safe, fast and inexpensive. More importantly for Seattle, Amazon built a robust structure that survived the dot-com bubble burst of the end of that decade, and has thrived despite the massive retail downturn in recent years. With new buildings in South Lake Union, Amazon has boomed as an employer and in fact is the top private employer in town. Amazon also has several fulfillment (shipping) centers located throughout the Seattle-Tacoma area in cities like Renton and Dupont so jobs are spread out among these. The company is only growing its local presence so don't expect its place on this list to change anytime soon.
Providence is the third-largest nonprofit health system in the U.S. with a presence in Alaska, California, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Providence has a heavy presence in the Seattle area with Swedish Medical Center in Seattle and Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, as well as its 15-acre office campus in Renton, just south of Seattle.
Walmart has become a major employer in many regions and the Northwest is no different. While many Northwest shoppers prefer local one-stop-shopping option Fred Meyer, Walmart has gained a foothold in the area with supercenters and stores in Renton, Bellevue, Tacoma, Everett, Federal Way and other Seattle-area cities. However, as of early 2016, there is still not a store within the city limits of Seattle.
Weyerhaueser’s prominence in the Northwest may have waned, as other industries have grown while logging and wood processing has remained static, but Weyerhaueser also has a more reliable future. As long as trees grow back and people buy things made of wood, expect this dependable local employer to remain a presence. Weyerhaueser's headquarters was in Federal Way from 1971 until 2016, but it has since relocated to Pioneer Square, right in the heart of Seattle.
Based in Portland, Fred Meyer became the dominant Northwest grocery chain, with numerous stores in Oregon, Idaho, Washington and Alaska, before merging with Kroger. Kroger has bought dozens of grocery chains nationwide, but has so far maintained local branding and styles—nobody would mistake the inside of a massive Fred Meyer for the more boutique QFC, for instance (both Kroger companies). With its corporate offices remaining in Portland, the vast majority of Fred Meyer jobs in the Seattle area are retail, stocking and other store-level jobs.
From elected officials to desk clerks at the local licensing offices, King County government workers help make the local world go 'round. The jobs with the county are incredibly varied and include nurses, budget analysts, engineers, custodians, librarians and more - a little bit of everything!
Updated by Kristin Kendle.