How does the Bureau of Labor Statistics put together the jobs report? : The Indicator from Planet Money The United States added 390,000 jobs in May. Today, we go behind the scenes to find the surprisingly delightful secrets to how the Bureau of Labor Statistics collects that number.

Behind the scenes of Jobs Friday

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Darian Woods.

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

And I'm Wailin Wong, and it's jobs Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRHORN, CROWD CHEERING)

WOODS: That's right. Jobs numbers are out today showing solid growth. We had 390,000 jobs added to the U.S. economy in May, and the unemployment rate is unchanged at 3.6%.

WONG: Here at THE INDICATOR, jobs growth is one of our favorite economic indicators. It's this really direct measure of how the economy is going in a way that has this tangible, wide-reaching effect on everyday people.

WOODS: And like all superfans, we at THE INDICATOR love going behind the scenes. We want to go backstage to the economic statistics green rooms and eavesdrop on the bespectacled heroes entering numbers into databases. Last year, we set in on how price inflation data was collected, and now we are going to learn how jobs numbers are put together.

WONG: Today on the show, behind the scenes of jobs Friday - we listen in as tightly held secrets that could move markets are whispered over the phone to a Florida call center.

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WOODS: There are two main surveys that go into jobs Friday - one that surveys households for things like unemployment and a second survey of businesses and government agencies. This one is called the establishment survey, and this is where you get the jobs numbers, that 390,000 jobs added to the economy in May. And every month, the establishment survey interviews about 130,000 employers. It covers about a third of all non-farm workers in the country. Some employers complete the survey online, but a lot of it is done the old-fashioned way over the phone.

ERICA HENNION: Hi, Darian. It's Erica Hennion (ph) with the U.S. Department of Labor. How are you doing this afternoon?

WOODS: I'm doing very well. How are you? How are you today?

HENNION: I'm doing OK.

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 the phones to paint that big picture of jobs in America. Erica used to work as a bakery manager, so she's no stranger to chatting with people.

HENNION: And I will attribute that to my mother. She's a hairdresser, so she's been a person who's always talked to people. And so I've just been around that.

WOODS: I mean, hairdressers know everything, Wailin.

WONG: Yeah, they do. I mean, I have spilled many a secret to my hairdresser.

WOODS: And this chitchatting 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 make those numbers. A lot of businesses, when they call and we talk to them, they're not going to do it because it's not mandatory.

WONG: The more people who pick up the phone, the more comprehensive the survey is and the more accurate the jobs Friday numbers will be.

WOODS: While I'm on the line, Erica calls up a professional employer organization in Arizona. This is a kind of company that shares hiring with small businesses.

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HENNION: It's Erica with the U.S. Department of Labor. How are you doing today?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Doing good. I think I...

HENNION: Good.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Just know your voice by now when you call (laughter).

HENNION: I know. It's been a while for us (laughter).

WONG: The way the survey works is that the same business will get a call each month for anywhere between two and four years. That way, they're already familiar with how the survey works when Erica dials them.

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

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Eighty.

HENNION: Eighty - went up another person. Yay. We'll 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 she'll ask every employer - how many of their staff are women; how many are in non-supervisory roles, total payroll costs for everybody and the total hours worked.

HENNION: So it's wanting me to put in a little note for the statisticians as to the reason for that increase.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah. We...

WOODS: And Erica jots down notes for why this company's employees were working more hours this month.

HENNION: But you have a very happy Memorial Day, and I'll check back in with you in June, OK?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right. Thank you. You, too - have a good one.

WOODS: OK. So if this is representative of the rest of the economy, then we're doing pretty good in the labor market.

HENNION: Yep. I will take any little bit of increase that I can see, definitely.

(LAUGHTER)

HENNION: I'm relieved that that's another business that I can check off my list, and then I just put my nose to the grindstone and call the other 399 cases that 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 them, you schedule them forward, and you hang up, and then you just do the next call. And then, all of a sudden, you look up and it's lunchtime, and you're like, where did the morning go?

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

HENNION: It has gotten harder. It has gotten harder over the years, especially after the pandemic. There has been some pushback from different respondents that don't want to report the data because of the political economy the way it is and everything like that, so there has been some pushback. There is some distrust there, and I've actually had a few people that have yelled at me and screamed at me, and then they called me back and apologized because they realized that they took it out on the wrong person. I'm their outlet. I am the person that they can physically talk to about the government.

WONG: Well, I'm glad they at least apologize, but it's like - maybe they should call their congressperson instead of yelling at Erica.

WOODS: Yeah, absolutely. Call your congressperson.

WONG: Erica says she tries to get people to stay on the phone by helping them understand why the jobs numbers are so important. These numbers feed into town planning or business decisions about relocation, and also big decisions at the central bank - the Federal Reserve.

WOODS: So remember that the Federal Reserve has two mandates. At the moment, it is really focused on getting price inflation down, but it also has the goal to keep employment high - to keep jobs high. And for those jobs numbers, the chair of the Federal Reserve and his colleagues rely on the numbers spoken to people like Erica in a Florida call center.

WONG: At the moment, the Federal Reserve might keep raising interest rates, which will make people's mortgages or car loans more expensive. And with job numbers solid, 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 trickles down to your price of bread, milk and eggs, so it does affect you. You just don't see it.

WOODS: And along with explaining why the jobs report matters, Erica also makes sure to build a strong relationship with the people that she calls.

HENNION: I have a couple respondents that share a birthday, and so I'll make sure I put, like, a note in that they had a birthday, or it was their son's birthday party, and ask them how everything went - kind of thing.

WOODS: Oh, that's so nice.

HENNION: I've helped some people actually plan vacations to Florida...

WOODS: Oh, really?

HENNION: ...Because they've asked. They've been wanting to visit the area, and I'll help them find restaurants that locals like to eat at.

WONG: So let me get this straight - Erica's like an event planner. She remembers birthdays and special occasions.

WOODS: Yeah (laughter).

WONG: She's like a travel agent (laughter).

WOODS: I know. There are many jobs wrapped into this one interviewing job. It's so incredible. Erica also gets tips about specific industries from people like her hairdresser mother.

HENNION: I'm like, mom - I'm like, salons - when should I not call a salon? And I try and take that into account. And I take some advice from her that Tuesdays are her busiest day, so then I might not call them on a Tuesday to follow up with them.

WONG: Erica's soft skills are critical for getting hard numbers correct. Several months ago, we had jobs reports that didn't seem so stellar, but they were later edited to be actually quite good - the numbers were revised up. And one reason for those revisions was the Bureau of Labor Statistics finally tracking down those respondents and getting their missing numbers after the deadline for Jobs Friday.

WOODS: But to get ahead of the clock, Erica does one other call - this one to a corporate office in California.

HENNION: How many total employees worked or received pay?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That would be 506 employees.

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

HENNION: I still have another eight more calls left, and I'm here for, like, another 45 minutes.

WONG: Erica ended up collecting 298 responses before the deadline - a little less than she'd hoped, but not for lack of trying. She said there was one day where she squeezed in a massive 115 calls.

WOODS: Well, we at THE INDICATOR are always looking out for those jobs numbers, so we thank you for doing the hard work getting those 300 or 400 calls every single month and getting those numbers out there.

HENNION: Well, thank you (laughter).

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

WONG: This episode was produced by Jess Kung, with engineering from James Willetts. Corey Bridges did the fact-checking. Our senior producer, Viet Le, edited this episode, and Kate Concannon edits the show. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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