Nez Perce County is tied to all the counties in north central Idaho but most closely with Asotin County in Washington. Together, the two counties – whose largest cities Lewiston and Clarkston are connected by bridges across the Snake River – make up the Lewiston metropolitan area. Asotin County is largely a bedroom community for Nez Perce County although some Nez Perce County residents work across the border. Lewiston is a regional hub for transportation, retail, health care, entertainment, federal and state government, wholesale and professional services.
Lewis-Clark State College employs 700 in Lewiston. As well as providing four-year degrees, it also is north central Idaho’s center for professional-technical education and customized work force training.
Manufacturing plays an important role in the county. Its largest employer, Clearwater Paper in Lewiston, is known for the variety and high pay of its 1,600-plus jobs. Ammunition maker ATK in Lewiston continues to expand and expects to employ 1,200 people by the end of 2010. Another bullet maker, Extreme Bullet, and some ATK suppliers have created a few dozen jobs in the last few years and are expected to create more than 100 jobs in the next two years. Jet boat builders in Lewiston and Clarkston also are expected to add more than 100 jobs as they increase exports to Europe.
The Snake River carries barges loaded with grain, legumes, paper, lumber and other products from Lewiston, Idaho’s only seaport, to the Columbia River and then the Pacific Ocean. The Lewis-Clark Valley also is the gateway to Hells Canyon.
The Nez Perce Tribe employs about 900 people at its casino resort near Lewiston and its headquarters and health care clinic in Lapwai. It plans to expand its roles in economic development, tourism and work force development.
Like the nation, Nez Perce County has experienced a “lost decade” – a decade without job growth. Its nonfarm payroll jobs fell 2.6 percent from 21,790 in 2000 to 21,214 in 2009 while U.S. jobs fell 0.7 percent. Asotin County’s nonfarm payroll jobs rose 2.9 percent from 5,094 to 5,239, partially offsetting most of Nez Perce County’s job loss.
Population growth has also been slow. Nez Perce County's population grew 4.8 percent from 37,410 in 2000 to 39,211 in 2009 while the state’s population grew 19.5 percent and the nation’s population grew 9.1 percent. Slow job growth reduced migration into the county, while an aging population reduced the birth rate. Asotin County's population grew at roughly the same rate as Nez Perce County’s – 4.2 percent from 20,551 to 21,420.
Nez Perce County's unemployment rate more than doubled between 2007 and 2009, jumping from 2.8 percent to 6.2 percent. Despite the increase, the rate remained well below the national rate of 9.3 percent and the Idaho rate of 8 percent.