Modernizing the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the future of work

Robust data from federal statistical agencies informs the policy decisions that will define economic health for decades to come

Guest post from the American Statistical Association

Sept 1, 2020

The available economic data has grown exponentially while the BLS budget in real dollars has shrunk by $76 million.

Social media manager. Telemedicine doctor. Drone operator. Uber driver. Podcast producer. UX designer. Nanotechnologist. Social entrepreneur. 

Ten years ago, none of these jobs existed. A decade from now, the list will include jobs unimagined today. Even as the world adjusts to a global pandemic—and in some ways because of it—we are on the cusp of a great technological revolution. The growth of 5G networks capable of transmitting massive amounts of data in milliseconds will accelerate the emergence of artificial intelligence, altering in fundamental ways how humans live and work.

The Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) produces the data that allow policy makers to measure the health of the U.S. economy, the state of employment, and the productivity of the U.S. workforce in real time.

Just as critical, BLS statistics can help policy makers prepare for this uncertain future of work. BLS data can help predict which jobs will be in demand a decade from now and how the workforce is changing now. That information helps employers adapt after disruptive events, such as COVID-19, while also helping educators look ahead to prepare young people for the future of work changed by technology

The economic indicators

BLS produces seven key economic data studies known as the Principal Federal Economic Indicators (PFEI). These economic indicators influence markets and economies around the world and give a snapshot of U.S. economic health. They are:

These are considered essential by Congress and account for 85% of the BLS budget.

Four other studies—the National Longitudinal Surveys, the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS), the American Time Use Survey, and the Employee Benefits Survey account for another 10% of the budget.

Gathering the data that can predict the future

BLS provides the gold-standard data that educational institutions, business leaders and government policymakers use to make decisions now about future economic needs.

Whenever the U.S. has faced economic upheaval – whether from changes in manufacturing, new global competitors, technological revolutions, or an emerging health crisis – the BLS has armed American government and businesses with data that can predict the future.

Using sophisticated data collection methods, BLS statisticians collect information from businesses about their plans and investments, the shape of their workforce and their anticipated needs. 

The data can be used by federal officials to determine which cities need job training money or Social Security benefits. Private businesses can use the data to ensure their salaries are keeping pace in the marketplace. And colleges can use the data to determine whether they are offering the right courses for the next generation of workers.

BLS statisticians collect data on:

Emerging gaps in the statistical picture

In 2009, Congress funded BLS at $597 million. In 2020, Congress funded BLS programs at $628 million. That $31 million increase over the past decade does not account for inflation in the cost of goods and salaries. When we account for 11 years of cost increases, BLS has lost $76 million in purchasing power.

BLS no longer has the resources to tap the unprecedented wealth of data produced each day. Its computer systems, its IT and software are outmoded. Its offices are understaffed.

To cope with its shrinking budget, BLS has cut programs and found efficiencies. That means the government and American businesses no longer get the best available data they need to understand and predict what’s shaping the future of work in the U.S. economy. For example, BLS has not conducted a Survey of Employer-Provided Trainingsince 1995.

The most unfortunate consequence, however, is that the BLS no longer has the resources to create the new, innovative statistical products that will take our workforce, our investments and our economic policy soaring into the future.

The data of the future

Now more than ever, it is challenging to predict what lies ahead for the U.S. economy. But BLS data can help identify and understand shifts in labor trends as they occur. To keep up with changes in the economy and the workforce, BLS must add to its statistical products. Key additions would include:

  • A regular survey to measure the gig economy and the side hustle
  • A redesign of the Occupational Employment Survey to include new and emerging jobs that have developed over the last decade
  • An expansion of the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey to include regional and industry detail
  • An update of Occupational Projections to more rapidly recognize emerging and in demand fields
  • Development of an Input Price Index by industry
  • Modernization of the Consumer Expenditure Survey
  • Creation of a quick-response employer survey that would measure contracting out, hiring constraints and automation
  • Development of regional Producer and Consumer Price Indices.

Today and tomorrow’s economy in America

What opportunities will tomorrow hold? The jobs of American workers are changing, and the statistics the BLS provides help us prepare for the future. Over time, BLS reports are tracking the evolution of our nation’s economy.

As we head into this future, the BLS must be appropriately funded so it is equipped to adapt and continue to provide this important service for our nation.

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