Planet Money Indicator: NPR



SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE FROM DROP ELECTRIC SONG, “WAKING UP TO THE FIRE”)

DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

This is THE PLANET MONEY INDICATOR. I am Darian Woods.

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

And I’m Wailin Wong, and it’s Friday job.

(SOUND EXCERPT OF AN AIR HORN, CROWD CHEERS)

WOOD: That’s true. The jobs numbers came out today and show solid growth. We had 390,000 jobs added to the US economy in May, and the unemployment rate is unchanged at 3.6%.

WONG: At THE INDICATOR, job growth is one of our favorite economic indicators. It’s this really direct measurement of how the economy is doing in a way that has this tangible and widespread effect on ordinary people.

WOODS: And like all superfans, at THE INDICATOR, we like to go behind the scenes. We want to go behind the scenes of the green rooms of economic statistics and listen to bespectacled heroes enter numbers into databases. Last year we explained how price inflation data was collected, and now we will learn how employment figures are gathered.

WONG: Today on the show, behind the scenes at Friday’s Jobs, we listen to some well-kept secrets that could move the markets being whispered over the phone to a call center in Florida.

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WOODS: There are two main surveys that look at Friday jobs — one that surveys households for things like unemployment and a second survey of businesses and government agencies. This is called the establishment survey, and that’s where you get the employment numbers, those 390,000 jobs added to the economy in May. And each month, the establishment survey questions around 130,000 employers. It covers about a third of all non-agricultural workers in the country. Some employers complete the survey online, but much of it is done the old-fashioned way over the phone.

ERICA HENNION: Hi, Darian. This is Erica Hennion (ph) from the US Department of Labor. How are you this afternoon?

WOODS: I’m fine. How are you? How are you today?

HENNION: I’m fine.

WONG: Erica Hennion is an agent for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Department of Labor. She is one of about 300 people working on the phone to paint a big picture of jobs in America. Erica used to work as a bakery manager, so she’s no stranger to talking to people.

HENNION: And I’ll attribute that to my mother. She’s a hairdresser, so she’s a person who has always spoken to people. And so I’ve just been around that.

WOODS: I mean, hairdressers know everything, Wailin.

WONG: Yes, they do. I mean, I spilled a lot of secrets to my hairdresser.

WOODS: And that chatter is really important because when we spoke, Erica was aiming to make 400 calls for the month with people who don’t necessarily want to answer them.

HENNION: It gets stressful towards the end because you’re like, I want to do these numbers. A lot of companies, when they call and we talk to them, don’t because it’s not required.

WONG: The more people who pick up the phone, the more comprehensive the investigation and the more accurate Friday’s numbers will be.

WOODS: While I’m on the line, Erica calls a professional employers’ organization in Arizona. It’s a kind of company that shares hiring with small businesses.

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HENNION: This is Erica, from the US Department of Labor. How are you today?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Do good. I think that I…

HENNION: Fine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: …

HENNION: I know. It’s been a while for us (laughs).

WONG: The way the survey works is that the same company will get a call every month for two to four years. That way, they already know how the investigation works when Erica calls them.

HENNION: And so, for this pay period that included May 12, how many employees in total worked to receive their pay?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Eighty.

HENNION: Eighty – came up another person. Yay. We will take it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It doesn’t happen very often lately, so we’ll take it (inaudible).

HENNION: No, I know.

WOODS: Erica asks a few more questions, the same ones she will ask all employers – how many of their employees are women; how many are in non-supervisory positions, total payroll costs for everyone, and total hours worked.

HENNION: So he’s asking me to put a little note for the statisticians on the reason for this increase.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah. We…

WOODS: And Erica takes notes to explain why the employees of this company worked more hours this month.

HENNION: But you’re having a very happy Memorial Day, and I’ll get back to you in June, okay?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Okay. Thanks. You too have fun.

WOOD: Alright. So if that’s representative of the rest of the economy, then we’re doing pretty well in the labor market.

HENNION: Yes. I’ll take every little increase that I can see, sure.

(LAUGH)

HENNION: I’m relieved that this is another case I can tick off my list, and then I just put my nose in the grindstone and call the other 399 cases I have.

WOODS: Three hundred and ninety-nine.

HENNION: We call it smiling and dialing, and you just – you call, you collect the data, you thank it, you schedule it, and you hang up, and then you just make the next call. And then, all of a sudden, you look up and it’s lunchtime, and you’re like, where’s the morning gone?

WOODS: Has it gotten easier or harder to get people to react over the years?

HENNION: It got harder. It got harder over the years, especially after the pandemic. There was resistance from different respondents who don’t want to report the data because of the political economy as it is and all that, so there was resistance. There’s some mistrust there, and I’ve actually had a few people yell at me and yell at me, and then they called me back and apologized because they realized that they had gone after the wrong person. I am their outlet. I am the person they can physically talk to about the government.

WONG: Well, I’m glad they’re at least apologizing, but it’s like — maybe they should call their congressman instead of yelling at Erica.

WOODS: Yes, absolutely. Call your MP.

WONG: Erica says she tries to get people to stay on the phone by helping them understand why the employment numbers are so important. These numbers feed into city planning or business decisions regarding relocation, as well as major central bank decisions – the Federal Reserve.

WOODS: So remember the Federal Reserve has two terms. At the moment it is really focused on reducing price inflation, but it is also about keeping employment high – keeping employment high. And for those jobs numbers, the Federal Reserve Chairman and his colleagues are relying on numbers given to people like Erica at a Florida call center.

WONG: For now, the Federal Reserve may continue to raise interest rates, which will make mortgages or car loans more expensive. And with strong jobs numbers, the Federal Reserve is more likely to keep raising interest rates to fight inflation. But that could change if the labor market deteriorates.

HENNION: I mean, it affects the price of bread, milk and eggs, so it affects you. You just don’t see it.

WOODS: And in addition to explaining why the employment report matters, Erica also makes sure to build a strong relationship with the people she calls.

HENNION: I have a few respondents who share a birthday, and so I’m going to make sure to put, like, a note that they had a birthday, or it was their son’s birthday party, and their ask how it all happened – sort of thing.

WOODS: Oh, that’s so sweet.

HENNION: I’ve helped some people plan vacations in Florida…

WOODS: Oh, really?

HENNION: …Because they asked. They wanted to visit the area and I will help them find restaurants where the locals like to eat.

WONG: So let me understand – Erica is like an event planner. She remembers birthdays and special occasions.

WOODS: Yeah (laughs).

WONG: She’s like a travel agency (laughs).

WOOD: I know. There are a lot of jobs wrapped up in this interview work. It’s so amazing. Erica also gets advice on specific industries from people like her hairdresser mother.

HENNION: I’m like mom – I’m like salons – when shouldn’t I call a salon? And I try to take that into account. And I advised him to say that Tuesdays are his busiest day, so I might not call them on a Tuesday to follow up with them.

WONG: Erica’s soft skills are key to getting accurate numbers. Several months ago we had some jobs reports that didn’t look so stellar, but then they were changed to actually be quite good – the numbers have been revised upwards. And one of the reasons for these revisions was that the Bureau of Labor Statistics finally tracked down these respondents and obtained their missing numbers after the Jobs Friday deadline.

WOODS: But to get a head start, Erica makes another call — this one to a corporate office in California.

HENNION: How many employees in total worked or received a salary?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That would be 506 employees.

WOODS: And I feel like it’s time for me to leave Erica to continue her work.

HENNION: I still have eight calls left, and I’m here for about 45 more minutes.

WONG: Erica ended up getting 298 responses before the deadline – a little less than she had hoped, but not for lack of trying. She said there was one day when she made 115 massive calls.

WOODS: Well, at THE INDICATOR we’re always on the hunt for those jobs numbers, so thank you for doing the hard work to get those 300 or 400 calls every month and getting those numbers out there.

HENNION: Well, thank you (laughs).

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WOODS: Special thanks to Nicholas Johnson of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, who really helped make this whole episode possible.

WONG: This episode was produced by Jess Kung, with engineering by James Willetts. Corey Bridges did the fact check. Our lead producer, Viet Le, edited this episode, and Kate Concannon is editing the show. THE INDICATOR is an NPR production.

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