When the national unemployment rate was revealed on April 6 – as it is the first Friday of every month – most people probably heard about it on the news. Analysts, economists, and others debated, as they always do, whether the rate is “good” or “bad” and its various implications. What does it mean for the economy? Are employers hiring more workers and in what industries? How will businesses and the stock market react? Who will it help or hurt in the upcoming fall election?
While all of these questions are certainly relevant, a bigger question – and one that we should be asking more often – is who actually understands these numbers and how are they using them to find jobs or guide their careers. While many people are familiar with the difficult job market and realize that the unemployment rate has reflected this reality to some degree, very few probably know where the employment data come from and how they can use this information to their benefit. After working for a year at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the government’s principal agency responsible for measuring labor market activity, I came across this reality on a daily basis. Too often, it seemed that many job seekers, ranging from laid-off construction workers to recent college graduates, struggled to access and understand data relevant to their potential career paths.
Whether workers are looking to transition to a career in a growing field or considering to move to a city with low unemployment, labor market information can serve as a useful guide in the decision-making process. With a lack of time, knowledge, and resources, however, many individuals may find it difficult to obtain data, despite it being free and readily accessible online. Think about it: if you come from a low-income community, do not own a computer, and must balance two (or more) jobs to make ends meet, are you going to consider or even know about this information? If you have been unemployed for over a year and have little guidance when applying to jobs, are you going to necessarily look at employment data first and then make decisions? Realizing the importance of this information to workers and employers, government bodies at the federal, state, and local level have sought ways to disperse data and expand public outreach as part of workforce development strategies.
At the federal level, BLS provides a wide range of data that highlight overarching trends in unemployment, workforce characteristics, and occupational employment among other statistical information. Depending on the specific data released, individuals can access timely articles, interactive maps, and detailed reports to guide their decisions. The Current Population Survey Program, for example, provides a comprehensive body of data on the labor force, hours of work, earnings, and other demographic characteristics. In contrast, the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey Program produces data on job openings, hires, and separations by industry and region. The Occupational Outlook Handbook serves as perhaps the most useful resource for students by describing the pay, work environment, and employment growth in hundreds of occupations. Job seekers, for instance, may be interested to find that personal care aides, home health aides, and biomedical engineers are the three fastest-growing occupations, which are all expected to grow more than 60 percent in total employment over the next ten years.
State and local government bodies, likewise, have prioritized the expanded access of labor market information. Similar to other states, the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development, for example, releases articles, maps, and fact sheets to illustrate various industries and occupations. Interactive online tools, including a “Real Time Jobs in Demand” tool, allow individuals to locate jobs by browsing listings that are aggregated from employers throughout the state. In much the same way, the Oregon Labor Market Information System aims to provide useful, readily accessible data on job training and emerging employment opportunities to address persistent unemployment, the state’s “key workforce challenge.” At a more local level, workforce investment boards and other community development bodies have explored ways to expand access to data. The Los Angeles Workforce Investment Board, for instance, provides a directory of labor market tools on hiring and salary trends. In recent years, the use of social media, ranging from Twitter to Facebook, has also become increasingly important in One-Stop Career Centers to raise awareness of available data.
As the job market begins to recover from the economic downturn, the importance of labor market information should not be overlooked. For both workers and employers alike, gaining access to relevant data is an essential part of workforce development. Federal, state, and local government bodies should continue exploring ways to release data to those who can benefit from it most in the months and years to come.
Guest Contributor: Joe Kane