Can we trust Wisconsin jobs numbers?

Experts in Wisconsin are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the quality of the statistical reporting of the state’s employment and unemployment numbers.
These metrics are all important as the state tries to recover from the Great Recession, so unsurprisingly there is great unease when the numbers just don’t seem to square up other numbers and with reality.
Here are some of the puzzlements that the latest numbers present:
• According to record keeping by the Obama Administration, Wisconsin lost 14,600 jobs in November. But, at the same time, the unemployment rate dropped from October’s 7.7% to 7.3%. Huh? That could have a logical explanation if a lot of Wisconsinites dropped out of the workforce during the month. But they typically do just the opposite in the pre-holiday season. Two different surveys drive the jobs and jobless numbers. Still, they ought to square up.
• Recent surveys by Manpower Inc. have been showing more companies moving into a hiring mode.
• Manufacturers are complaining that they can’t find qualified workers to fill openings, implying that demand is up and they are in a hiring mode. The state job posting site lists about 32,000 open positions across Wisconsin, compared to about 240,000 and double that number if the under-employed are counted.
• The October reporting from the feds had to be corrected after their initial release. Whoops! The first tally for that month was a loss of 9700 jobs, but that was later revised in a positive direction to 2400. What happened?
• The October and November job losses match those of the worst point in the 2008-2009 economic collapse. Experts find that incredible, since the economy is now growing, albeit at a slow pace.
• There was steady growth in job numbers in the last six months of 2010 under Gov. Jim Doyle and the first half of 2011 under Gov. Scott Walker. What changed that trend line as the U.S. economy slowly perked up?

Until 2010, the state got funds from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics to do its own employment reporting. The state data was then integrated into the national report. In 2010, the feds pulled back some of the funds and took over management of employment surveys and analysis.
In these contentious political times, it is only natural that partisans are wondering if there isn’t some hanky-panky going on with the federal reporting.
Don’t say it can never happen. The Federal Reserve Board of Minneapolis labeled the unemployment rate reports under Gov. Doyle as “rosy and smoky.” In the fed’s eyes back then, there was incongruity between its collection of metrics and what Wisconsin was reporting as an up-trend.
The growing distrust of the jobs numbers has to be remedied. Job creation is the number one issue in the country and the state, and it’s a difficult assignment. Without good data, it becomes nigh impossible.
Further, the breakdown of the federal numbers for the state into its 12 regions is not precise or useable. It’s an extrapolation. Most of the action on economic development happens at the regional, level, so good data there is also essential.
Accurate survey techniques are not that hard to do or that expensive. It’s time for an independent institution to step up and do a thorough job of compiling the Wisconsin numbers. We can do this right without help from the feds.

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