Topic Archives: BLS Management

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!

Innovating for the Future

Erica L. Groshen was the 14th Commissioner of Labor Statistics. She served from January 2013 to January 2017. This is her final post for Commissioner’s Corner.

Image of former BLS Commissioner Erica L. Groshen

It didn’t take long after I became Commissioner of Labor Statistics in January 2013 for me to appreciate the skill, dedication, and innovation of the staff that works here. Whether they’re doing sampling, data collection, estimation, or dissemination; whether they’re the IT professionals or the statisticians or the HR staff; whether they’re the newest employees who are so tech-savvy or the more senior employees who hold a wealth of institutional knowledge. To a person they are phenomenal. I am honored to have had the pleasure of leading them — and letting them lead me — during the past 4 years.

 

I have had many opportunities to observe and encourage innovation during my tenure at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, from listening tours to senior staff conferences to regional office visits to discussions with a wide variety of stakeholders. From these efforts, we have identified several activities that will help us develop and implement the next generation of labor statistics. These days, we call these efforts a variety of names, such as “modernization” and “reengineering.” But, in truth, they just continue the impressive progress that has been the hallmark of BLS for the past 133 years.

In my final Commissioner’s Corner post, I want to tell you a little about some of our current reengineering efforts.

One of the things we do best at BLS is data collection, largely because we are always looking for ways to improve. Recent efforts include identifying alternative data sources, expanding electronic collection, and “scraping” information directly from the Internet. These efforts can expand the information we provide, lessen the burden we place on employers and households that provide data, and maybe even save some money to provide taxpayers the best value for their data dollar.

These efforts are not new. One source of alternative data we’ve used for many years comes from state unemployment insurance filings, which identify nearly every employer in the country. We tabulate these data but also use them as the source of our sample of employers for certain surveys and as a benchmark of detailed employment by industry. We also use information from private sources and from administrative sources, like vital statistics. Our latest efforts involve examining techniques to combine data across multiple sources, including mixing survey and nonsurvey data.

We want to give employers the opportunity to leverage the electronic data they already keep so it’s easier to respond to our surveys. These efforts include allowing employers to provide electronic information in multiple formats; identifying a single source of electronic data from employers, reducing the number of locations and number of requests made to multiple sites of the same organization; and working with employers to allow BLS to access their data directly from the Internet. We rely on good corporate citizens to supply the information that we use to produce important economic data. Making data collection easier is a win-win.

The innovation doesn’t stop at collection. We are using electronic text analysis systems extensively to streamline some of our data-processing activities. Much of the information we collect is in the form of text, such as a description of an industry or occupation, details about a workplace injury, or summaries of employee benefit plans. Transforming text into a classification system for tabulation and publication used to be a manual task. BLS has begun to transform this task through the use of machine-learning techniques, where computers learn by reviewing greater and greater amounts of information, resulting in accurate classification. As we expand our skills in this area and find more uses for these techniques, the benefits include accurate and consistent data and greater opportunities for our staff to use their brainpower to focus on new, unique, and unusual situations.

We are also modernizing our outputs, producing more with the information we have. For example, we have begun several matching projects, combining data from two or more sources to produce new information. One example is new information on nonprofit organizations. By linking our employment data with nonprofit status obtained from the Internal Revenue Service, we now have employment data separately for the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. And we took that effort one step further and produced compensation information for these sectors as well. Look for more output from these matching efforts in the future.

Finally, we’ve made great strides in how we present our information, including expanded graphics and video. And we are not stopping there. Each year we are expanding the number of data releases that include a companion graphics package. We are developing prototypes of a new generation of data releases, with more graphics and links to data series. And we have more videos to come.

My 4 years as Commissioner of Labor Statistics have flown by. I’m excited to see so many innovations begin, thrive, and foster additional innovations. I have no doubt that the culture of innovation at BLS will continue. As my term comes to an end, I know now more than ever that the skill, dedication, and creativity of the BLS staff will lead this agency to even greater advances in the years to come.