Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Be careful with that data, it's dynamite 

A week ago Chumley at Plastic Hallway was infuriated by how his newsfeeder was providing him a report on jobs:

(St. Paul, MN) -- For the first time in at least four years, the state has more job openings than a year ago. State labor analyst Steve Hine says despite the 28-percent increase, the number of vacancies in Minnesota is still short of where it was prior to the recession that started in 2001.

Excuse me? First off, since when are we in a verifiable recession? Second, if there is a recession, why peg 2001 as the start date? Third, why aren't we celebrating like crazy a 28 percent increase?
The recession date, of course, has been the subject of debate, though it appears to have started in early 2001. But its ending is also in 2001, if you're going to use the official figures. I've looked at the data for a long time and I can't reasonably claim NBER made a mistake either way. So if the story says there's a recession starting in 2001, it probably could say the recession also ended that year.

The original information about the increase in job vacancies indicates nothing like what's in Chumley's newsfeeder. And I should point out that Hine, rather than a run-of-the-mill "state labor analyst" is actually the head of the data unit there at DEED. What he probably said was it was the biggest increase seen since 2000 -- which is when they first started these surveys. The use of the data, while true, makes it sound as if Hine said that, which I doubt he would have unless he was asked "Was this the highest level of vacancies ever recorded?" The correct answer would be no, they were higher in 2000. Having been interviewed for the Quarterly Business Report a few times, I can tell you that answering journalists' questions about anything to do with numbers requires careful handling.

The base question, though, is whether the economy in Minnesota looks good. Today's local paper carries a story with one of my former students showing how it has been finding jobs. The story's headline? "Job prospects increasing for college graduates."

Good for you, Chumley, you've helped my local paper.