Topic Archives: BLS Management

BLS Learns from Civic Digital Fellows

In the few months that I’ve had the pleasure of occupying the Commissioner’s seat at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s been clear that I’m surrounded by a smart, dedicated, and innovative staff who collect and publish high-quality information while working to improve our products and services to meet the needs of customers today and tomorrow. And soon after I arrived, we added to that high-quality staff by welcoming a cadre of Civic Digital Fellows to join us for the summer.

In its third year, the Civic Digital Fellowship program was designed by college students for college students who wanted to put their data science skills to use helping federal agencies solve problems, introduce innovations, and modernize functions. This year, the program brought 55 fellows to DC and placed them in 6 agencies – Census Bureau, Citizenship and Immigration Service, General Services Administration, Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, and BLS. From their website:

Civic Digital Fellowship logo describing the program as "A first-of-its-kind technology, data science, and design internship program for innovative students to solve pressing problems in federal agencies."

BLS hosted 9 Civic Digital Fellows for summer 2019. Here are some of their activities.

  • Classification of data is a big job at BLS. Almost all of our statistics are grouped by some classification system, such as industry, occupation, product code, or type of workplace injury. Often the source data for this information is unstructured text, which must then be translated into codes. This can be a tedious, manual task, but not for Civic Digital Fellows. Andres worked on a machine learning project that took employer files and classified detailed product names (such as cereal, meat, and milk from a grocery store) into categories used in the Producer Price Index. Vinesh took employer payroll listings with very specific job titles and identified occupational classifications used in the Occupational Employment Statistics program. And Michell used machine learning to translate purchases recorded by households in the Consumer Expenditure Diary Survey into codes for specific goods and services.
  • We are always looking to improve the experience of customers who use BLS information, and the Civic Digital Fellows provided a leg up on some of those activities. Daniel used R and Python to create a dashboard that pulled together customer experience information, including phone calls and emails, internet page views, social media comments, and responses to satisfaction surveys. Olivia used natural language processing to develop a text generation application to automatically write text for BLS news releases. Her system expands on previous efforts by identifying and describing trends in data over time.
  • BLS staff spend a lot of time reviewing data before the information ends up being published. While such review is more automated than in the past, the Civic Digital Fellows showed us some techniques that can revolutionize the process. Avena used Random Forest techniques to help determine which individual prices collected for the Consumer Price Index may need additional review.
  • Finally, BLS is always on the lookout for additional sources of data, to provide new products and services, improve quality, or reduce burden on respondents (employers and households). Christina experimented with unit value data to determine the effect on export price movements in the International Price Program. Somya and Rebecca worked on separate projects that both used external data sources to improve and expand autocoding within the Occupational Requirements Survey. Somya looked at data from a private vendor to help classify jobs, while Rebecca looked at data from a government source to help classify work tasks.

The Civic Digital Fellows who worked at BLS in summer 2019

Our cadre of fellows has completed their work at BLS, with some entering grad school and the working world. But they left a lasting legacy. They’ve gotten some publicity for their efforts. Following their well-attended “demo day” in the lobby at BLS headquarters, some of their presentations and computer programs are available to the world on GitHub.

I think what most impressed me about this impressive bunch of fellows was the way they grasped the issues facing BLS and focused their work on making improvements. I will paraphrase one fellow who said “I don’t want to just do machine learning. I want to apply my skills to solve a problem.” Another heaped praise on BLS supervisors for “letting her run” with a project with few constraints. We are following up on all of the summer projects and have plans for further research and implementation.

We ended the summer by providing the fellows with some information about federal job opportunities. I have no doubt that these bright young minds will have many opportunities, but I also saw an interest in putting their skills to work on real issues facing government agencies like BLS. I look forward to seeing them shine, whether at BLS or wherever they end up. I know they will be successful.

And, we are already making plans to host another group of Civic Digital Fellows next summer.

Greetings and a Meditation on Alan Krueger

William W. Beach became the 15th Commissioner of Labor Statistics in March 2019.

I am a little late with my first blog, but I’m sure readers can appreciate what it means to start this job as Commissioner of Labor Statistics on a week that ends in the publication of the Employment Situation report.

Every moment of my first week at BLS has been highlighted by the unfailing grace and cheerfulness of the career staff.

I felt very strongly that my first blog as BLS Commissioner should be about the late Alan Krueger’s pioneering work, particularly as it relates to both the Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A Meditation on Alan Krueger
(1960 – 2019)

I have been thinking a lot about Alan Krueger since his passing on March 16. Thinking about the loss, of course: the shock of losing such a penetrating mind, such a courageous scholar. And thinking about the insights and breakthroughs he could yet have made: at 58, Alan Krueger was striding strongly.

The past three weeks have seen a steady flow of recollections in the popular and professional press. Let me recommend two highly accessible pieces: Ben Casselman and Jim Tankersley’s New York Times essay and Larry Summers’s deeply thoughtful recollection in the Washington Post. There are more out there and more to come.

I’m writing today to remind us of Professor Krueger’s close ties to our daily work. He, indeed, connected in so many ways. First, he was a consummate though sometimes reluctant government economist. Dr. Krueger served as the Department of Labor’s chief economist from 1994 to 1995, returned to the federal government service in 2009 as an assistant secretary in the Treasury Department from 2009 through 2010, and finally served on President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2011 through 2013.

This service record as a government economist, as important as it is, is not Professor Krueger’s deepest tie to BLS. Rather, and second, he stood out among peers for his leadership as an empirical economist. Starting with his celebrated study of the economic effects of the minimum wage in 1994, when he and David Card pioneered the use of natural experiments in policy analysis, to his recent pathbreaking work on the opioid crisis, Alan Krueger made important contributions to our understanding of work and public policy through innovative use of data.

This is what ties him most to us, in my view. His sometimes controversial conclusions to one side, Professor Krueger looked at the world when he wrote. That may seem an obvious posture for any economist, but too often analysts look elsewhere: for instance, they wrap themselves in strictly theoretical work or confine their own work to the research channels that others have dredged. While theory and replication are essential parts of our profession, they cannot substitute for an active curiosity about the real world and how it is changing. Unless you’re looking out into the world, you may never see the amazing, new developments there that could inspire you to grow beyond the current limits of your economic understanding.

It will take time to define Alan Krueger’s legacy in economics and public policy, but this much is already clear: he left a strong marker of what it means to be a labor economist and a public servant, and he showed two generations of labor researchers that the most fruitful laboratory for economic science is the swirling, crazy world outside our office doors.

Passing the Baton to the New BLS Commissioner

I am pleased to announce that Dr. William Beach has been confirmed by the Senate and sworn in as the fifteenth Commissioner of Labor Statistics.

A highlight of my time as Acting Commissioner was being able to share this blog with you, our customers. This forum allowed me to provide updates on program improvements and concrete examples of how BLS data can help everyone make smart decisions. I hope you check back here often to hear more updates from Commissioner Beach. I learned that this blog is a great vehicle for communicating to you in an informal, but hopefully informative, way. I want to thank the BLS staff who helped keep the blog fresh — without them, it would not have been nearly as interesting!

Finally, I want to use my last post as Acting Commissioner to sincerely and publicly thank all BLS staff. They work tirelessly day in and day out to ensure we provide gold-standard data to the American people. They also share their technical expertise in terms that even I can understand!

I know that all of you join me in extending a warm welcome to Dr. Beach.

Thank you for your continued support,

Bill Wiatrowski

Celebrating 75 Years of BLS Regional Offices

World War II had a significant impact on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1942, the Office of Price Administration asked BLS to help them understand what was going on with prices and price controls. Price controls? Remember, this was during World War II and there was significant government intervention in markets. Shortly after that, the National War Labor Board asked BLS to conduct surveys and evaluate wage rate increases. These two projects showed the need for local information, not just national averages. Why am I writing about events from World War II? Well, the growing need for local data led BLS to create our regional offices, and we recently celebrated their 75th anniversary. I want to tell you a little about these offices and their rich history.

Today, BLS staff throughout the country collect price and wage data and more. As you can imagine, the uses of these data and the methods for collecting them have changed significantly. Our regional offices collect survey data, work closely with our state partners, and help people find and understand the information they need.

Survey data collection has changed significantly from the 1940s. Today our regional staff throughout the country work with survey respondents to make it as easy as possible to provide accurate information. Modern technology makes it easier to respond to our surveys, but even more important is the close relationships our regional staff have with survey respondents. That high-touch, high-tech approach has proven successful and helped us achieve high response rates.

BLS has a long history of working with states. We wrote about this unique and important partnership back in 2016. Our regional staff work closely with their state colleagues to provide data that are timely, accurate, and relevant to the local economy. We are proud of our partnership with the states.

Finally, each regional office has a small staff of economists dedicated to providing information to the public. These Economic Analysis and Information staff write news releases and other reports that focus on local data. The staff support our data collection efforts through outreach to local business communities and associations. The staff also provide information to people and businesses who use data to make important decisions.

What started as a way to provide analysis on government price controls and wage increases has evolved and blossomed into an integral part of BLS. The pioneering staff from our past and the dedicated staff of today allow us to produce gold standard economic statistics.

Congratulations to the BLS regional offices staff on 75 years of excellent service to the nation!

BLS Mathematical Statistician Receives American Statistical Association Founders Award

Our very own Director of the Mathematical Statistics Research Center, Dr. Wendy Martinez, recently received the American Statistical Association’s Founders Award at the 2017 Joint Statistical Meetings in Baltimore. This award honors those select few ASA members with “longstanding and distinguished service to the association and its membership.” To be eligible for the award, candidates must have served the organization over an extended period in a variety of volunteer leadership roles. The Founders Award is the only ASA award that is kept secret and announced only at the awards ceremony. Wendy said she was caught “completely by surprise” when her name was called at the awards ceremony. Previously, Wendy earned her status as an ASA Fellow for “making outstanding contributions to statistical science” in 2006. Incidentally, two BLS alumni, Nick Horton and John Eltinge, also received the 2017 Founders Award that evening.

Wendy Martinez receiving Founders Award from American Statistical Association President Barry Nussbaum.

Wendy Martinez receives Founders Award from American Statistical Association President Barry Nussbaum.

Wendy’s distinguished service to the ASA includes many years serving as a Section Chair, Committee Chair, and Program Chair. Wendy is especially proud of her role as the Program Chair to plan the Joint Statistical Meetings held in Washington, DC, in 2009. She also was a keynote speaker at the “Women in Statistics and Data Science” conference last year. In addition, Wendy founded the “Statistics Surveys” journal and serves as Coordinating Editor. The Journal publishes survey articles in theoretical, computational, and applied statistics.

Wendy joined BLS 6 years ago. At BLS, Wendy oversees the Mathematical Statistics Research Center. When asked what her favorite part about working at BLS is, Wendy said, “It’s the ability to be innovative. BLS has a culture of fostering innovation in its employees.”

Congratulations on an outstanding professional achievement, Wendy!