Counting Jobs

Last week I wrote about the challenges of counting deaths. But surely in economics, we can count better, especially when it comes to something concrete like the number of people working. Right?

Maybe not. If you follow the economic data regularly, you’ll know that once per month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases data on the employment situation of the nation’s economy. And if you are familiar with this report, you will probably know that it is based on two separate surveys, one of businesses and one of households. And furthermore, it gives us two separate measures of employment, the number of people working for pay.

Joseph Politano has been tracking the employment situation reports, and he writes that the two measures of employment have “completely diverged since March of [2022], with the establishment survey showing payroll growth of nearly 2.7 million and the household survey showing employment growth of 12,000.” The surveys are tracking the labor market differently, so it’s not surprising that they won’t be exactly the same (they rarely are), but this sort of discrepancy is huge. Even accounting for most of the differences between the surveys, there is still a gap of about 2 million jobs.

Today, the BLS released yet another measure of employment, this one comes from the Business Employment Dynamics series. The BED is not released as quickly as the data in the employment situation report — the BED data released today is for the 2nd quarter of last year. But that’s because this data is much more comprehensive, and it’s actually the same data underlying the employment measure from businesses in the monthly employment report (it comes from unemployment insurance records, which covers most of the workforce).

What did the BED find for the 2nd quarter of 2022? A net loss of 287,000 jobs. The BED is only looking at private-sector jobs, and it is also seasonally adjusted to smooth out normal quarterly fluctuations. If we look back at the monthly data on employment, what did it look like in the 2nd quarter of 2022? Using the seasonally adjusted, private-sector jobs number to match the BED, it showed a gain of 1,045,000 jobs. In other words, we have a discrepancy of 1.3 million jobs in a single quarter. This is huge.

Perhaps some of this could be attributed to different seasonal adjustment factors, but even using the unadjusted data there is still a gap: 3,089,000 jobs added in the monthly payroll survey (private sector only), but only a net gain of 2,432,000 private-sector jobs in the BED data. That discrepancy is smaller, but it is still a difference of over 600,000 jobs. Note here that there was job growth in the second quarter in the BED measure, just not enough job growth that on a seasonally adjusted basis that it showed net growth. Another way to think of this: there is almost always growth in the 2nd quarter, but we expected it to be a bit stronger than this data shows.

If you aren’t confused enough yet, BLS produces yet another measure of employment, called the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. Really this is the broadest measure of jobs and is using the same underlying data as the BED and monthly nonfarm jobs in the business survey. But like the BED, it is also released with a significant lag. What does it show? A gain of 2,338,000 jobs in the 2nd quarter of last year (this includes public sector employment too). That number isn’t seasonally adjusted and compares with the CES (monthly nonfarm employment) number of 2,702,000, a discrepancy of 364,000 jobs (note: the CES will later be revised and benchmarked with the QCEW data).

What can we learn from all these different estimates of jobs? And which is right? The short answer to the second question is: they are all right, but measuring different things. The big takeaway is that there was indeed job growth in the 2nd quarter of 2022 (even the household survey shows job growth), but based on more complete data the monthly business survey probably overstated job growth, and it may have actually been pretty weak job growth compared to what we would normally expect in that quarter in the private sector (but of course, we aren’t in normal times).