What’s In a Job?

When you try to describe coastal and ocean jobs statistics, have you ever gotten a headache thinking about which word to use? Jobs, workers, employee, or employed persons…

Labor statistics are easily misunderstood and misinterpreted. Let’s take a look at an example. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recently released new labor statistics: “Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 162,000 in July.” But some news agencies reported it as “162,000 more workers were hired.” Did you find that those statements don’t mean the same thing?

BLS statistics of payroll employment and employed workers come from two distinct surveys: Current Employment Statistics (CES) and Current Population Survey (CPS). CES survey counts the number of payroll jobs, while CPS counts the number of employed persons. So, spot the difference in our example now? 162,000 more jobs added do not guarantee that 162,000 workers are doing the work; it’s possible that current job holders may work more part-time jobs!

To get a better understanding of the intricacies of labor statistics, let’s follow our fictional friend, John, through his career.

“John grew up in a fishing community. He always worked on his father’s fishing boat when he was not in school. In this scenario, John was an unpaid family worker over 16 years old. He was not reported by his father as a payroll employee in CES, but was reported as an employed person in labor force in CPS.

After high school, John became a contractor on a commercial fishing vessel for a short while. He got a share of the proceeds from the sale of every catch. By this payment method, he was categorized as a self-employed individual. He was not recorded by his employer in CES survey, but he still reported himself as one employed person in CPS.

When John went to a college to study engineering, he worked as a part-time worker at two restaurants five shifts a week. He was counted for employment twice in CES because both of his employers reported him as their employee. Though being a multiple jobholder, he was still counted in CPS as one employed person.

After graduation, John responded to CPS that he was unemployed for several months. Later he got a marine technician job at a boat service dealership in the winter and worked as a scenic boat tour guide in the summer. The fluctuations of CES and CPS statistics (not adjusted) are partly due to many seasonal jobs like John had.

John then worked as a marine engineer on a merchant ship for many years. Recently, he decided to shift to a shore management job so that he could spend more time with his family. When he went back to school for a MBA program, he responded to CPS that he is not in the labor force.”

John’s life story reveals only a tip of the iceberg of the complexity of jobs statistics. Many people, especially young adults, are hired by service industries as part-time workers. Many industries have business seasons and off seasons during a year, such as commercial fishing, tourism and recreation, ship and boat repairing. Many workers, like fishermen, harbor pilots, and recreational activities trainers, are self-employed workers.

Before you give a comment on labor statistics, make sure you look for where the data come from and what they really mean. For example, BLS Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW, available from Economics: National Ocean Watch) provides actual counts (not estimates) of about 99.7% of payroll employees in the country and is derived from the same sample source as CES. But to get a bigger picture of ocean and Great Lakes related jobs, you also need to consider ENOW for Self-Employed Workers Statistics derived from Census Bureau, which covers self-employed businesses.

So, now you are an expert on labor statistics.


  1. Posted by Scott Moore on 8/28/2013 17:39

    “You have done a very good job of explaining a process that is confusing. One suggestion, although you have links to the definitions, is I would state in one sentence the definition of each method. From that foundation, I believe it becomes clearer to the reader what you are trying to demonstrate in your example. I believe that it is variance of method you are trying to explain; therefore a clear statement can assist you in making your case. The statement then acts like a hypothesis in a way, which establishes the foundation for your example. By the way I thought the example was creative and informative.
    Although each link states a number of criteria for each method, the reality is the statistics go very deep in both of these methods, so don’t be too concerned about shorting it up a bit to the key drivers. Finally, there are only a few people who really understand the models they are using, so I always try to evaluate these data by their trend and relationship to other economic data, since the truth lies somewhere in murky waters of statistical error.”


  2. Thank you for your comment Scott. You know what’s in my mind! I was indeed concerned a lot about shorting the article up. The original version was much longer. It is so difficult to make the differences clear without going deep in the details. Your suggestion about comparing data by their trends is very helpful. I’ll look into that and maybe write another blog about it 🙂


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