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Learning about data needs from our customers and partners

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

With the current interest in labor market conditions, the end of September was a busy time for me—full of good opportunities to speak with some of our customers and partners. BLS serves many different types of customers in fulfilling our mission to bring you objective, relevant, high-quality statistics and analysis in a timely manner. The public—individuals, businesses, and policymakers—all need this information to make better decisions. Thus, we need to understand our customers’ needs. We have forged many partnerships over the years to learn about those needs and how best to conduct our work.

On September 18 I spoke at the meeting in Burlington, Vermont, of the Board of Directors of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies (NASWA). NASWA is an organization of state administrators of unemployment insurance laws, employment services, training programs, employment statistics, and labor market information. Many of our statistical programs at BLS are conducted through partnerships with the state workforce agencies that compose NASWA. I spoke to NASWA members about how we can strengthen our already strong partnerships to use new technologies and data sources to serve the ever-growing data needs of businesses, workers, jobseekers, households, and public policymakers at the national, state, and local levels.

A few days after the NASWA meeting, I spoke in Washington at a meeting cosponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and the International Monetary Fund. The topic of the meeting was “Policy implications of the new U.S. labor market normal.” I took the opportunity to speak to the audience not just about the economic statistics we see in headlines, such as the unemployment rate and job growth, but about other measures that may not be as well known. A few examples of these are the declining but still high levels of long-term unemployment, the still-low number of workers voluntarily quitting their jobs, and the decline since 1998 in job gains from new establishments. I also discussed the slow growth in wages and benefits in recent years. I noted that our nation’s output of goods and services in the business sector increased more than eightfold since 1947, while the total hours worked has not quite doubled. That difference between the growth in output and hours represents productivity growth. Measures of productivity growth are important because, as our economy becomes more efficient, workers and business owners can share the gains and improve living standards. While productivity growth is essential for compensation growth, the two don’t always move in lockstep. Of particular note, since 1973, productivity has expanded at an average rate of 1.8 percent annually, while real hourly compensation has grown at half that rate, 0.9 percent.

Two days later, BLS Associate Commissioner Michael Horrigan and I participated in a conference in Washington at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The topic of the conference was “Labor Market Slack: Assessing and Addressing in Real Time.” I chaired a discussion session that examined the question, “Can we reconcile slow wage growth and demographic labor supply decline?” In a discussion session on measures of slack, Michael Horrigan described the important perspectives that several BLS programs provide on labor market slack.

At the end of September I spoke in Chicago at the annual meeting of the National Association for Business Economics (NABE). NABE’s members include business economists and others who use economics in the workplace. My talk focused on the opportunities and challenges BLS faces in the years to come. I highlighted some of our recent improvements to data and services, such as the new aggregation system for the Producer Price Index, the BLS Application Programming Interface (API), and the maps and tables of hurricane flood zones on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. I also talked about some improvements that are coming soon, such as modernizing the Consumer Expenditure Survey, providing data on employment and wages in nonprofit organizations, and adding questions to the monthly Current Population Survey about professional certifications and licenses. Our goal at BLS is to be more flexible, modern, and responsive to the nation’s growing data needs. We need to expand our data offerings, but we can’t sacrifice quality, and we must provide the best value for taxpayer dollars.

I always enjoy speaking to groups like these because it helps me and other BLS leaders learn more about the needs of our data users. The more we know about those needs, the better we can provide the public with data that are most useful—that is, accurate, objective, relevant, timely, and accessible.