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Tag Archives: BLS staff

Answers to Some Recent Questions about BLS Data

I tell anyone who will listen that BLS staff love to talk about our data. We have LIVE people at the end of the phone line (or email request) who are happy to answer questions about BLS data and the methods behind those data. The COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped our ability to respond to public questions. Even in our telework posture, we pride ourselves on outstanding customer service. All BLS statistical programs have staff who answer public information requests. We also have a central information staff out of our national office and eight information offices scattered around the country. Yes, we get questions, and we are more than happy to provide answers.

Recently, we’ve received some general questions about our methods, which cover multiple BLS programs. Here are a few of those questions and our answers.

Why does BLS revise published estimates?

One of the hallmarks of BLS economic indicators is their prompt release. We provide a “first look” at a variety of economic conditions, including employment and unemployment, price change, wages, productivity, and more. To release these data in a timely manner, we follow very strict data collection and processing schedules. Data obtained after the collection deadline are not included in the initial release but can be incorporated later. We identify data subject to these revisions as preliminary. Revisions are a necessary part of the statistical estimation process to ensure accuracy.

The Producer Price Index (PPI) recently expanded the amount of revised data available to the public. PPI data are revised for 4 months following initial release, again to account for information received following the initial deadline, thus providing a clearer picture of price change. Until recently, revised data were only available in the fourth month. For example, July data originally published in August would be revised with the November release in December. The expanded data now available show monthly revisions for each of the 4 months following initial release. So, following the initial release of July data in August, revised data for July are available in September, October, and November, before we release final data in December. This change is in response to requests from data users for these interim values.

Other BLS programs release periodic revisions as updated data become available, providing a clearer view of the economy. For example, the Current Employment Statistics program has more information about the monthly revisions to payroll employment data. Details about the methods behind all BLS programs are available in the BLS Handbook of Methods.

Why is it important to respond to BLS surveys?

We carefully design our survey samples to represent the people and businesses in the United States. Without input from these sample members, BLS indicators would not accurately reflect the economic and social conditions in our country. We strive to make completing our surveys as easy as possible, and we often offer multiple ways to provide information. We design survey questions that are easy to understand and answer in a short period of time.

Nearly all of our surveys are voluntary, which means the people, households, and organizations selected can choose whether to participate. We are grateful that the great majority of them agree to participate. The information benefits all of us.

BLS maintains response rate information on our website and updates this information on a regular basis. This information can be very technical, which is why BLS staff stand ready to answer any questions you might have about response rates.

Check out this video to learn more about the importance of responding to BLS surveys.

What effect did the pandemic have on BLS survey participation?

With some careful planning, a lot of hard work, and a little bit of luck, BLS has been able to release all planned data products on schedule, despite the pandemic. We weathered both internal and external challenges. While many of our tasks had been successfully tested in remote environments, we had to change a few processes. Fortunately, those changed processes were successful, and some even spawned innovations we will continue. Externally, we were mindful that many businesses had limited operations or were closed, and many households were preoccupied with illness, childcare, and other responsibilities. Response rates did decline. Since the start of the pandemic, each BLS program has provided more information about survey response and methods. In some cases, response rates have recovered from their pandemic lows, but many are still below levels before the pandemic.

What steps has BLS introduced to combat weak survey response during the pandemic?

BLS takes many different approaches to data collection and works closely with our partners in the states and other statistical agencies to obtain high quality information from businesses and households. Traditionally, some data collection is done in person, where BLS builds a relationship with survey respondents and shows them the importance of response. BLS also offers many options designed to make ongoing response easy, including use of the internet, email, file transfer, and others. At the start of the pandemic, BLS suspended all in-person data collection. We were fortunate that many businesses, even many of those with limited operations during the pandemic, maintained electronic records they provided to BLS, allowing us to continue producing key economic data.

For our part, the pandemic provided an opportunity to accelerate our ongoing move away from paper and mail. We used phone and email to contact respondents and obtain their data. We also began to experiment with video data collection, a process that proved very successful and is now a vital part of our data collection toolkit. While we started slowly with video collection, and took particular care to ensure confidentiality, we quickly discovered huge benefits. BLS staff can use video communications systems to share their screen, demonstrate BLS confidentiality procedures, show data products, and more. In person, shuffling all these papers can be a little unwieldy. With a little practice and planning, video data collection has proved invaluable.

BLS also has explored ways of capturing information without burdening respondents at all. In some cases, we are able to use web scraping to obtain needed data. We are also exploring supplemental data sources, such as data aggregators and crowd sourcing websites. We have accelerated these explorations during the pandemic. We are learning a lot and obtaining more and more data through these alternative approaches, which can mitigate the effects of declining response rates on data quality. These efforts will ensure that BLS data products remain of high quality with enough detail for stakeholders, while lessening respondent burden.

We will return to some in-person data collection over time and will use those interactions to build ongoing relationships. But we also will continue to advance these innovations, such as video collection and web scraping, as options to make data collection more efficient in the future.

Planning BLS Strategy for 2025 and Beyond

The start of the New Year seems like an appropriate time to share the new BLS Strategic Plan, which is designed to provide a roadmap for BLS over the next 5 years and beyond. Today, I want to tell you a little bit about how we developed this plan and then highlight some of its content.

We have a lot of resources to guide us in crafting the strategic plan. Consider:

  • As an agency of the U.S. Department of Labor, BLS provides statistical guidance and support to the department and its agencies. As noted in the Department of Labor’s Strategic Plan, BLS provides sound and impartial information about the economy for decision making.
  • As part of the decentralized U.S. statistical system, BLS works with its sister statistical agencies to share ideas, coordinate common activities, and improve operations.
  • We adhere to various laws, regulations, and policies to ensure that we provide accurate, objective, relevant, timely, and accessible information. Of particular note is the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act of 2018, which reaffirms the confidentiality of statistical information and encourages cooperation and efficiencies across the statistical system.

Using all these inputs, BLS senior staff spent the last year looking both inward and outward to refine our mission and vision, and to identify broad strategies and individual goals and objectives for the coming years. We considered our strengths and weaknesses, looked for opportunities and identified threats, and refined a laundry list of ideas into a concise yet comprehensive plan.

It starts with our mission statement:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics measures labor market activity, working conditions, price changes, and productivity in the U.S. economy to support public and private decision making.

We then present the values and principles that guide us in fulfilling that mission, including:

  • Independence from partisan interests
  • Consideration of the needs of a diverse set of customers
  • Confidentiality of our data providers
  • Innovation
  • Stewardship of our staff and our resources

The plan includes five strategies, the first of which is to produce objective statistics and analysis, the core work of our agency. While always striving to improve, we must never lose focus on the hundreds of new data releases we produce each year.

The remaining strategies focus on how we do our work, and how we improve upon that work. Strategy 2 is about making improvements in the information we provide and what techniques we use to produce that information. Strategy 3 is about our source data, with special focus not only on traditional survey respondents but also on alternative data sources. Strategy 4 focuses on managing the resources that allow us to do our work, including our people, our funding, and our infrastructure. Finally, Strategy 5 is about you—our customers who come to us for information. We strive to let you have a seamless customer experience today, and we look for ways to make that experience even better tomorrow.

One of our many challenges in developing this strategic plan was to ensure all BLS staff see themselves in the strategies, goals, and objectives. We also want all BLS stakeholders—data providers, data users, researchers, policymakers, and more—to see their unique perspectives addressed. We hope you will take a few minutes to review the BLS Strategic Plan and let us know if we’ve met this challenge. Feel free to leave a comment below.

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