By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — November appears to be another down month for Wisconsin’s workforce, with state employers reportedly shedding an estimated 14,600 jobs.
But those preliminary estimates could be off, perhaps significantly, as was the case in October and June, according to revised estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, or BLS.
The swings in employment statistics between the inner-monthly data collection is causing some to ask whether the BLS’ estimates are B.S.
The trend has been troubling.
Based on BLS data, Wisconsin has recorded five consecutive months of workforce contraction, a point state Rep. Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, jumped on Thursday.
“Since the governor signed his regressive budget in June, Wisconsin has lost jobs five months in a row — 34,900 jobs overall,” Barca said in a statement. “Tens of thousands of Wisconsin families are already struggling because of the extreme Walker agenda, and today’s announcement shows that many more will suffer heading into the holidays.”
The employment numbers for October, however, were much better than originally reported, when Barca and fellow Democrats pointed to what appeared to be an October jobs decline of 9,700. With those numbers came the declaration that Wisconsin saw the largest monthly percentage reduction in workforce in the nation.
Not so, according to revised BLS figures released by the state Department of Workforce Development, or DWD, showing Wisconsin employers cut 2,400 jobs in October, a revision of, or correction, of 75 percent.
“October was the fifth straight month and the eighth month this year in which the federal government overestimated the preliminary job loss numbers or underestimated job gains for Wisconsin,” DWD Secretary Reggie Newson said in a news release Thursday. “I am particularly concerned by the disparity in the October preliminary numbers, which were off by 7,300 for total jobs and 7,900 for private-sector jobs.”
Newson added that “these unreliable employment statistics out of Washington misinform the public and create unnecessary anxiety for job seeks and job creators about the shape of our state’s economy.”
Politics of statistics
Still, the BLS statistics are the standard, used by workforce development agencies, economic developers and politicians nationwide. Wisconsin DWD, coincidentally, found no complaints when the same bureau noted six consecutive months of job growth to begin 2011.
Republicans touted the numbers as evidence the governor’s policies are working, getting those who are displaced back to work.
Any downturn in the numbers has come with diatribes from Democrats, suggesting Walker has lead the state down a disastrous road.
Zach Adkins, an economist with the BLS’ Economic Division of Current Employment Statistics, hears it all the time, particularly during an election year.
“We never get requests to skew the numbers, but sometimes you’ll get leading questions,” he told Wisconsin Reporter, noting political campaigns are the biggest users of BLS data to fit their purposes.
It can be argued that DWD did as much in its December jobs release. It took seven paragraphs and a bar graph before the release noted the 14,600 estimated jobs lost last month.
But the variation in the data this year is hard to dispute — up and down.
In February, for instance, the preliminary estimate was that Wisconsin’s economy gained 5,200 jobs, according to Workforce Development. The final estimates revised several weeks later showed the addition of 8,200 jobs.
Some media reports recently have claimed June’s jobs numbers weren’t as solid as the Walker administration originally reported. They appeared to have been better, upwardly revised by 1,500 jobs to 11,000 positions.
And the down months, based on revisions, have not been as down. Preliminary estimates in August showed employment declined 2,300 positions, while the revised figures showed a decline of 500 jobs, according to Workforce Development.
DWD contracts with BLS to provide monthly employment estimates, generated from a survey of about 4 percent of Wisconsin employers. BLS revises additional data as it become available, but the statistics aren’t published until the following month.
Adkins said the lag often comes from businesses that do not report their unemployment insurance claims until after the preliminary data is released.
“That’s why we want to make people know these are estimates,” the BLS analyst said. “We are handcuffed to the samples we get.”