Washington-area workers are making less money than they used to, and they will likely see their wages continue to plummet in a local job market that, while better than much of the country, remains weak.

Average weekly wages for employees in the region fell drastically from the third quarter of 2011 to the same period in 2012, according to the latest data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That drop lightened the paycheck of the average U.S. worker by about $10 a week, but it cost local workers of as much as $57 a week.

George Mason University economist Stephen Fuller said the decline is a result of a significant demographic shift, in which older workers who are often at the top of the pay scale either retire or get laid off and are replaced by younger employees willing to accept significantly lower salaries.

Shrinking paychecks
Average Change
weekly since
salary 2011
Alexandria $1,266 -0.2%
Arlington $1,488 -3.9%
Fairfax $1,410 -2.2%
Montgomery $1,236 -0.6%
Prince George's $981 -2.2%
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

"In order to stay in business, companies are looking for ways to save money," Fuller said. "They're tightening down, cutting benefits and freezing wages."

Despite the decline, workers in the Washington region continue to earn some of the highest weekly wages in the nation.

Arlington County residents earn an average of $1,488 a week. That's the fifth-highest wage for any locality in the country, the data show, but it's also $57 less than the same workers were earning in September 2011. Workers in Fairfax County aren't far behind, bringing home about $1,410 weekly, the seventh-highest wage in the country, despite losing about $31 a week during the same period. Prince George's County workers make about $981 a week, despite seeing a $22 plunge in weekly pay.

The drops were not as sharp in Alexandria and Montgomery County. Alexandria workers lost an average of about $13 a week but still make an average of $1,266 a week. Residents of Montgomery lost about $7 a week, down to an average weekly paycheck of $1,236.

But some experts say they expect wages to continue falling unless the demand for highly educated workers grows drastically.

"This trend is going to continue unless we get the economy growing," said Peter Morici, a University of Maryland business professor. "Skill-set jobs are shrinking ... and we're seeing college-educated people typically taking jobs offered to high school graduates."

Austin Nichols, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, said he expects the hiring of younger, less-skilled employees to continue driving down wages.

"Employers are able to offer less and still get what they need," Nichols said. "People [suffering from unemployment] are becoming more desperate."