West Virginia employment numbers are promising but don’t tell full story

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice is touting impressive West Virginia employment figures, although those numbers likely don’t tell the whole story.

Jim Justice

Justice put the spotlight on federal labor statistics showing West Virginia gained 19,000 jobs over the past year. 

Moreover, the governor said, these are the best employment numbers for West Virginia in more than a decade.

“I am hopeful that we begin to report the truth, what’s really happening, instead of the local sound byte,” Justice said at a news conference Monday morning at the state Capitol.

A data set by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows West Virginia with employment of 763,000 through October.

In October, 2018, West Virginia’s employment number was 744,014.

Steve Roberts

The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies for businesses, has been touting the employment statistics for several weeks. Chamber President Steve Roberts was on hand with Justice.

“West Virginia really has some astounding numbers,” Roberts said.

But the numbers touted by the Chamber and the governor come from one of several different data sets available from the federal government, and this one happens to be presenting the most optimistic results for West Virginia.

Several federal sets of employment numbers are available, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. So these West Virginia employment numbers should also be presented with some caveats.

John Deskins

“The numbers we trust the most are not showing anywhere near the 19,000 jobs over the past year,” said John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University.

Deskins, in a telephone interview, said the bureau relies most heavily on the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages.

Those reports by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics are less frequent but more reliable, he said. The statistics are compiled through state and federal unemployment agencies.

“Bottom line is, it’s more reliable and is not as heavily based on sampling,” Deskins said. “It’s more based on real data.”

The numbers cited by the governor and the Chamber appear to originate with the federal government’s Local Area Unemployment Statistics. They are helpful numbers, but they also have limitations.

They are compiled monthly, which means they are short bursts. And they are largely based on surveys of households. So the results can fluctuate depending on sample size. The surveys are fed into a model to try to smooth out any fluctuations.

Sean O’Leary

“For West Virginia it is notoriously volatile and subject to huge revision,” said Sean O’Leary, senior policy analyst with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a think tank and lobbying organization.

“It’s never been able to really capture West Virginia’s job market accurately. You have to look at the quarterly numbers or the annual numbers once they’re revised.”

A more accurate short-term employment data source, O’Leary suggested, would be the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Employment Statistics. 

Those numbers come from a more extensive survey of worksites throughout the United States, but even at that the small sample sizes for states can result in numbers that are misleading initially.

So those results, also, have to be revised later.

The most recent Current Employment Statistics don’t show West Virginia with significant employment changes from October 2018 to October 2019.

Those numbers show West Virginia employment in October 2018 of 730,000.

And they show West Virginia employment in October 2019 of 733,000.

For seasonally-adjusted total nonfarm employment by state, West Virginia ranks 41st over the course of a year.

West Virginia’s change from October 2018 to October 2019 was .4 percent.

Utah led the nation with 3.2 percent change over the year. Michigan and North Dakota had 0.

Roberts was asked about the reliability of the numbers used to show West Virginia’s employment.

He acknowledged they could be subject to error but said the Chamber generally trusts the statistics as they are provided by Workforce West Virginia, which in turn uses the federal statistics.

“The federal data set is generated from Washington. I’m not really one to call names or point fingers, but the civil service that some refer to as the ‘Deep State’ in Washington — those are the people who are responsible for these numbers,” Roberts said. “So we think the numbers are correct.”

Workforce’s most recent release describes a gain of 3,000 jobs from October to October — a statistic in line with the federal Current Employment Statistics data and significantly less than the number touted at the governor’s press conference.

In any case, Roberts said, “When Workforce West Virginia gives us these numbers that come from federal data sets, we think those are the correct numbers to use.”





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