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Society of Labor Economists 2014 Annual Meetings

Thursday, May 8, 2014

I attended the Society of Labor Economists 2014 Annual Meetings in Arlington, Virginia, on Saturday, May 3. The Society of Labor Economists was established in the mid-1990s to promote the study of labor economics and to highlight the contributions of labor economists. Its membership includes several Nobel Memorial Prize winners and many other distinguished economists.

It was my honor Saturday to introduce one of those distinguished economists, Katharine Abraham—one of my predecessors as BLS Commissioner. Katharine, who is a Fellow of the Society of Labor Economists, spoke to a lunchtime audience about “Diagnosing and Treating Structural Unemployment.” Long-term unemployment has trended down as the labor market continues to recover from the 2007–2009 recession, but the number of people unemployed 6 months or longer remains at historically high levels. Katharine used a lot of BLS data to challenge the frequent assertion that the United States has a widespread “skills shortage.”

As I introduced Katharine, I digressed to encourage attendees to ask their home institutions if they participate in BLS surveys. If so, they deserve sincere thanks. If not, I urged them to promote participation to do their part to ensure the continued high quality of BLS data.

After Katharine’s lunchtime discussion, I chaired a panel discussion about “Business Cycles and Employment.” The Great Recession was a hugely consequential labor market event. Between January 2008 and February 2010, the United States lost 8.7 million nonfarm payroll jobs. The unemployment rate rose from a prerecession low of 4.4 percent in May 2007 to a peak of 10.0 percent in October 2009. Thanks to recent innovations in U.S. statistics, this downturn and its aftermath can be studied in ways never before possible. For example, we now can look at measures of new firms that open, firms that close, and changes in the size of firms. We also can examine the flows of individuals into and out of jobs and the labor force.

It often has been said that we can’t solve problems that we can’t measure. I was proud to see so many analyses at the Society of Labor Economists meetings that used our latest and most innovative data to explore what is going on beneath the surface of our headline indicators. I am confident that this work will help inform our understanding of the labor market and the policies designed to address labor market problems now and in the future.