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Honoring Two Fearless BLS Visionaries

In January 2013, when I was sworn in as the 14th Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I couldn’t help thinking about my predecessors in the position. Each of the previous 13 commissioners has played a unique and pivotal part in the development of this agency in pursuit of our mission to produce data vital to the economic health of our country. I often focused on the first commissioner, Carroll D. Wright, and the 10th, and first female commissioner, Janet L. Norwood. They both played extraordinary roles in making BLS today one of the preeminent statistical agencies in the world.

For this reason, yesterday was an extremely special day for BLS and for me. U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Tom Perez inducted Carroll Wright and Janet Norwood into the Labor Hall of Honor—on World Statistics Day, no less!

Commissioner Erica Groshen speaks at the Labor Hall of Honor with Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen, and Clark University president David Angel

Commissioner Erica Groshen speaks at the Labor Hall of Honor induction ceremony with Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen, and Clark University President David Angel.

 

The power of statistics and how they help people make informed decisions was certainly on display. The induction ceremony also showed the outsized influence these two extraordinary statisticians and public servants have had on BLS and the country.

For example, did you know that Carroll Wright was self-trained as a statistician, yet served as BLS Commissioner, Chief of the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics, Superintendent of the Decennial Census, and President of the American Statistical Association? Even so, I believe his greatest accomplishment was his profound commitment that statistics produced by BLS would be devoted to “the fearless publication of the facts without regard to the influence those facts may have upon any party’s position or any partisan’s views.” I love the word “fearless” here—an unusual but totally apt tribute to BLS data nerds!

Wright’s work to ensure the impartiality of government statistics is still the bedrock of our agency and his greatest legacy. Articulating this doctrine and fashioning the steps to achieve it (as obvious as they might seem today) were key innovations when he introduced them.

Labor Secretary Tom Perez speaks at the Labor Hall of Honor with Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen, Clark University president David Angel, and Commissioner Erica Groshen.

Labor Secretary Tom Perez speaks at the Labor Hall of Honor induction ceremony with Federal Reserve Board Chair Janet Yellen, Clark University President David Angel, and Commissioner Erica Groshen.

 

Almost 100 years later, Janet Norwood carried on in Wright’s tradition. After rising through the ranks as a career employee at BLS, she was nominated to be the 10th Commissioner. Janet served as BLS Commissioner for 13 years, spanning three Presidential administrations. When she retired in 1991 after 28 years of service at BLS, the New York Times said she had a “near-legendary reputation for nonpartisanship.”

She was also responsible for making BLS what it is today—a model workplace with professional, dedicated employees fearlessly (!!) producing quality statistics for U.S. policymakers, businesses, and families. BLS rose to new heights of prominence as a result, with Janet testifying before Congress an amazing 137 times during her 13 years as Commissioner!

Both Carroll Wright and Janet Norwood set new standards for BLS Commissioners, and it was truly a highlight of my time as Commissioner to see them inducted into the prestigious Labor Hall of Honor.