Accolades for the new BLS hurricane flood zone maps and tables

This week I was delighted to learn that the team of BLS staff members who created the new hurricane flood zone maps and tables on the BLS website has been selected as a finalist for the Nextgov Bold Awards. Back in June I wrote about this important new resource, which shows employment, wages, and establishment counts on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts by flood zone category. Nextgov is an online publication that examines how technology and innovation are transforming the way government agencies serve citizens and perform vital functions. Nextgov is produced by Government Executive Media Group, which publishes Government Executive magazine, a monthly business magazine serving executives and managers in the federal government.

The BLS staff members who have been honored are Peter Smith, Monique Ortiz, Sara Stanley, and David Hiles, along with Sudarshan Jakhu, a staff member of one of our contractors.

The Nextgov Bold Awards recognize individuals who have conceived and implemented bold ideas for using technology to improve the way government works and serves citizens. The BLS team’s nomination was selected by the Nextgov editorial team from nominations sent in by agencies across the entire federal government. In addition to the Bold Award winners, Nextgov will have a People’s Choice Award that will go to the finalist who gets the most votes through an online poll that will be on Nextgov in August. The winners will be announced at the Nextgov Prime conference on September 8–9 in Washington, DC.

I am proud that BLS staff members have been recognized for their innovative work, and I congratulate them and the other finalists for this year’s Nextgov Bold Awards. The statistics BLS produces aren’t just numbers; they tell stories about real people. I view the new BLS hurricane maps and tables as especially important for aiding in preparation and emergency response to storms and for understanding the economic effects of storms after the fact. BLS will continue to highlight this resource throughout the hurricane season, as we did before Hurricane Arthur made landfall around the July 4 holiday just a few weeks ago.

Gaining insights from journalists to improve BLS products and services

Labor Secretary Tom Perez and I met recently with more than two dozen journalists to discuss ways in which BLS can improve the information we provide about the economy and how we provide it. I speak frequently with reporters, and so do many staff members at BLS. It’s part of our mission at BLS to be accessible and provide good customer service to help data users understand the data and analyses BLS produces. Typically when we speak to reporters, we’re providing them with information. The discussion Secretary Perez and I had with journalists was different in the sense that reporters were actually providing us with information. BLS has technical and user advisory committees with whom we meet on a regular basis to get advice about our products and procedures. BLS gains many valuable insights from those committees, but this was our first roundtable discussion with members of the media, and I’m really excited about it.

Members of the media are essential distributors of statistics from BLS and other federal statistical agencies. Although it is increasingly easy to get information about the labor market and economy directly from BLS through our website or Twitter feed, most people don’t get their information that way. More often they get it through a broadcast, web, or print news source. Journalists multiply the reach of BLS every time they cover a story that uses our statistics. I truly appreciate how journalists show their audiences the value of an objective data source like BLS. Journalists play a vital role in informing their audiences about subjects such as labor force participation, unemployment, or price changes, but journalists also can teach their audiences how to use data properly and what to trust along the way.

This group of journalists provided a number of really excellent suggestions about how BLS can improve the public’s understanding about the economy. Some of these suggestions might involve new surveys, additional questions in existing surveys, or tapping into data sources that don’t involve surveys. In many cases, however, the types of information these journalists suggested were things that BLS already provides, but we need to do a better job of increasing awareness about these data sources or making them easier to use.

Secretary Perez and I found this discussion to be extremely helpful, and I look forward to further discussions about how best to implement some of these ideas so that we can provide the public with data that are accurate, objective, relevant, timely, and accessible.

Helping young people learn about economic statistics—and have fun doing it!

This week we have guest bloggers, Jean Fox and Robin Kaplan of the BLS Office of Survey Methods Research. Jean and Robin are part of a team of staff members who have been working to improve our web resources for students and their teachers and parents.

BLS recently launched a new K-12 website to reach out to our youngest audience—students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The goal of the site is to help students learn about BLS concepts related to statistics and the economy and to help them make informed career decisions.

The new site has a mix of games, resources for students and teachers, and facts about BLS. Students can play games that teach them about BLS concepts, find careers that relate to their interests, and learn facts about the economy and jobs. Teachers can use the content on the site to bring BLS into the classroom, with hands-on activities that teach students about topics such as inflation, time use, and careers.

The development team wanted to get feedback about the site directly from kids. So when the Department of Labor (DOL) hosted a “Take your Daughters and Sons to Work Day,” we took advantage of the opportunity to see what the kids thought.

During the event, we held sessions in a DOL computer lab. Four different groups of 20 students each came through the lab, including students from elementary, middle, and high school. During each session, we gave a brief demonstration of the site, then let the kids try it out on their own. Most of the kids tried at least one of the games, and a number of them looked at career information. At the end of each session, we had a brief discussion about their experience and their recommendations for the site.

Overall, the students (and the chaperones!) liked the material on the site, but they had some great ideas for improving it. For example:

  • The students thought the games should have more of a “celebration” when they won.
  • Some students thought the games were too hard, others thought they were too easy. To address this, we should be sure to include different levels of difficulty for the games.
  • A couple of students mentioned that they might want to access the games and other content from a cell phone or a tablet, so we should make sure everything works on these devices.
  • Several students suggested that we should have more games; they were happy to hear we had more planned.

Overall, students who looked at the career information thought it was useful and interesting. They also had some suggestions, including:

  • We should make it easier to find information about occupations that were not listed on our page. Our Occupational Outlook Handbook contains information about hundreds of jobs, so the K-12 site should provide an easy way to reach it.
  • We should make sure that we include the more popular occupations on the K-12 career exploration page.

The team has already incorporated some of the suggestions. We are continuing to revise the site to add content and address additional suggestions from the kids. We are also working to get more feedback from students and teachers to improve the site for everyone. By creating content that appeals to kids, we hope to continue our mission of reaching out to the next generation of BLS customers.

If you have suggestions or comments, please contact the team at Kids@bls.gov.

Talking to retailers about economic statistics

Last week I had the pleasure to speak with an important group of leaders who represent both key users and vital providers of BLS data. This talk was with the National Retail Federation at their meeting of chief financial executives. The National Retail Federation is a trade association for discount and department stores, home goods and specialty stores, local merchants, grocers, wholesalers, chain restaurants, and Internet retailers from the United States and abroad.

I reviewed the importance of retailing in the U.S. economy. There were 15.3 million jobs in retail trade in the United States in May 2014. Although employment in the industry has been growing since early 2010, it still hasn’t quite reached its peak employment level of 15.6 million just before the 2007–2009 recession began.Retail-Employment2

Retail trade accounts for about 11 percent of nonfarm employment, which means the industry is slightly larger than leisure and hospitality and also larger than manufacturing, construction, wholesale trade, financial activities, and information. Of course, the health of the retail trade industry is closely tied to the health of these other industries.

We also talked about the heavy use that retailers make of statistics from BLS and the other federal agencies. Information on employment and unemployment, for example, helps retailers forecast sales and adjust inventories. Data on consumer and producer prices help retailers forecast their costs and adjust the prices they charge. Pay and benefits statistics help retailers determine the compensation levels they provide to their employees and forecast the spending levels of potential customers. Information on safety and health helps retailers ensure that their workplaces are safe.

BLS could not provide any of this essential information—which firms rely on to stay competitive—without the cooperation of respondents to our surveys. Nearly all of our surveys are voluntary, meaning that the individuals, households, and organizations selected for our survey samples can choose whether to participate. We’re very grateful that so many agree to participate. I spoke to the retailers about how the confidentiality of survey responses is strictly protected by law and BLS security policies. I also emphasized how BLS strives to simplify participation in our surveys by designing questions that are easy to understand and require the least possible amount of time to answer. I enjoyed my lively discussion with members of the National Retail Federation and look forward to working with them and similar groups to strengthen the U.S. statistical system and learn how to serve the needs of our customers better.

Cleveland Fed conference on “all things inflation”

A number of BLS colleagues and I recently participated in a lively conference held by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland on Inflation, Monetary Policy, and the Public. The conference included distinguished business leaders, policymakers, and academic researchers, who discussed such topics as the forces driving inflation rates and expectations, policy approaches across different economies and perspectives, the outlook for inflation, and the measurement of inflation. BLS is the principal federal agency charged with measuring price changes in the economy, so the conference theme was highly relevant for us.

I gave a talk describing how the Consumer Price Index is constructed. I invite you to see a video of my presentation, Measuring Inflation Accurately and Effectively, in the session that begins around the 36-minute mark of the video.