Related BLS programs | Related articles
April 1990, Vol. 113, No. 4
A data user's look back from 2015
Daniel S. Hamermesh
For someone like me, whose academic career began in 1965, empirical research on the labor market in 1989 was phenomenally easy. But by today's (2015) standards, our 1989 methods were primitive technology. Today's young labor economists surely are as incapable of appreciating the difficulties, in the 1980's, of conducting empirical research using data tapes that had to be obtained and manipulated with great effort as their young counterparts in 1989 must have been of appreciating the difficulties of doing research on data that, in the 1960's, had to be hand-copied and keypunched onto small cards. No doubt they would be equally flabbergasted by the paucity of data available in 1989. The dual revolution—in the technology of using data and in the kind and amount of data available—has, to some extent, resulted from decisions made in BLS during the 1990's.
Perhaps the most important of these decisions was the recognition that problems of confidentiality of establishment data could be overcome and those data made readily available to researchers outside of Government. This obviated the need for such worthy, but partial, approaches as the Census Bureau's Longitudinal Employment Database, an annual panel of manufacturing establishments that was only accessible to researchers who became sworn Government employees and who worked with the data at the Census Bureau. The change was facilitated by the development, in the late 1990's, of essentially error-free transmission mechanisms from BLS computers to individual users around the country via fiber-optic methods. As a result, researchers now can sit by their home or office computer and operate on data files located at BLS, extracting the data they desire or performing statistical analyses on BLS data files. BLS computers are programmed to prevent the export of data or the calculation of summary statistics that might violate promises of confidentiality. Blanket prohibitions on access are no longer needed—restriction is on a case-by-case basis, making access interactive and immediate.
We academic researchers pride ourselves on working on timeless issues; but very little research in the social sciences is timeless (or even very long-lasting). In the 1970's and 1980's, the difficulties of obtaining data made it necessary for us to do much of the testing of theories about the labor market on data that were 10 or even 20 year old technology developments have changed that and added a new currency to academic data that we now can obtain usually include information that is no more that 6 months old. Since 1996, Current Population Survey enumerators have been able to code data into their portable computers during their interviews for transmission immediately after; and establishments participating in employer-based surveys have responded electronically since 1993. The only lag in the process is the brief time needed to ensure data are error-free before BLS allows public access.
This excerpt is from an article published in the April 1990 issue of the Monthly Labor Review. The full text of the article is available in Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format (PDF). See How to view a PDF file for more information.
Read abstract Download full text in PDF (342K)
Within Monthly Labor Review Online:
Welcome | Current Issue | Index | Subscribe | Archives
Exit Monthly Labor Review Online:
BLS Home | Publications & Research Papers