Why the local jobs picture is so hard to figure out

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Employment data aren’t quite as opaque as the unemployment rate that we discussed last week, but there is still room for lots of confusion. Take the December data that were released for Colorado Springs a couple of weeks ago. We learned:

Employment, at 275,400 jobs, was unchanged from November, but 4,500 jobs lower than December 2009.

Employment, at 275,200 jobs, fell by 1,800 jobs between November and December and was down 4,600 jobs from a year earlier.

Employment, at 244,100 jobs, fell by 1,300 over the month and 2,600 jobs over the year.

Which figures are correct?

Well, the fact is that all of them are. It’s just that each reports a slightly different bit of information.

The first two sets of data come from a survey called the Current Population Survey or CPS. It’s the same survey that provides us the unemployment rate.

Its advantage is that it covers anyone age 16 or over who worked for pay or profit during the survey week who is neither in an institution (a correctional or a residential nursing care facility, for example) nor on active duty in the Armed Forces.

This means it picks up the self-employed and agricultural workers. It also includes unpaid family workers working at least 15 hours a week in the family business and all persons who were temporarily absent from their regular jobs because of illness, vacation, bad weather, industrial dispute, or various personal reasons, whether or not they were paid for the time off.

But remember that this survey is conducted with only a few hundred people in El Paso County, so it’s about as likely to be right as to be wrong. (Say that it isn’t statistically significant if you want to impress your friends with your erudition).

The first and third sets of data are seasonally adjusted, which according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, takes account of such things as normal seasonal weather patterns that tend to be repeated year after year. They also take into account the hiring (and layoff) patterns that accompany regular events such as the winter holiday season and the summer vacation season. These variations make it difficult to tell whether month-to-month changes in employment and unemployment are due to normal seasonal patterns or to changing economic conditions.

The third set of data comes from the Current Employment Survey (CES), a much larger monthly survey that covers about 140,000 businesses and government agencies nationally, representing approximately 440,000 individual worksites. It provides detailed industry data on employment, hours and earnings of workers on nonfarm payrolls.

The smaller the survey area, the less data are available, so we know less each month about what happened in Colorado Springs than we do about the state as a whole or the nation.

Its disadvantage is that it tells us nothing about how many people are unemployed. And, if an individual holds two or three jobs he/she gets counted more than once. However, I consider it to be the more reliable set of data, particularly on a month-to-month basis, because of the larger sample size and the fact that businesses, not individuals reply to the survey.

So, what can we say about job opportunities in Colorado Springs? There were fewer nonagricultural jobs (CES survey) available in December than a month ago or a year ago. Since just as many people reported they had jobs (CPS survey) in December as did in November, they must be working in sole proprietorships and such that aren’t included in the CES survey. Likely those jobs don’t pay as well or offer as many benefits.

More important, the last time there were only 243,000 nonfarm jobs in Colorado Springs (except for last March) was September 1999. The local economy is a long way from being healthy, at least for people who want a job.

Adams, a Colorado Springs resident and longtime Colorado economist, is a senior partner at Summit Economics. She can be reached at tuckhadams@aol.com.