Mark Sadd: Taking the long view on employment figures (Opinion)

Reporters dug into the details of Gov. Jim Justice’s announcement on Monday that the “number of West Virginians who have jobs is now the highest it’s been in more than a decade.” Justice claimed that 19,000 more people were working in the state than a year ago.

Joining Justice in the feel-good event was Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, on whose board I serve.

I knew nothing about the announcement until I read about it on Tuesday in the state’s leading newspapers and news sites. I found press reaction nearly as interesting as the jobs figures. The tone of reporting ranged from neutral to skeptical.

Steve Adams, of Ogden Newspapers, mostly reported data highlights drawn from WorkForce West Virginia. His was a perfectly straight news story.

Brad McElhinny, of MetroNews, further noted that “several federal sets of employment numbers are available, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. So these West Virginia employment numbers should also be presented with some caveats.” McElhinny interviewed John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University, who said the “numbers we trust the most are not showing anywhere near the 19,000 jobs over the past year.”

McElhinny also interviewed Sean O’Leary, of the union-backed West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy. Deskins and O’Leary said they prefer quarterly federal employment statistics for being more reliable or, I might rather say, realistic.

Phil Kabler, of the Gazette-Mail, wrote that state figures showing employers have added 19,000 jobs in 2019, for a total of 763,000 jobs, “is at odds with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which puts the state’s payroll employment at 733,000 for October, up 3,200 jobs from October 2018, an increase of 0.4 percent.”

Adams, to my gratitude, disclosed data that the others did not: “West Virginia’s labor force participation rate — the percentage of workers age 16-64 who are either working or seeking employment — continues to be the lowest in the nation at 55.3 as of October. The rate is coming up when compared to the October 2018 labor force participation rate of 53.9.”

I like the labor participation rate for what it purports to show, the state’s capacity to employ people who otherwise wouldn’t show up even in unemployment figures, otherwise, West Virginia’s active workforce. For a decade, West Virginia’s labor participation rate has been dreadful, either the lowest or close to it in the nation. A few years ago, our labor participation rate dipped below 50 percent and, since, has climbed well into the 50s, although still lurking in the cellar. Still, the rise ought to be good news to everyone.

Press scrutiny of employment figures is always welcome. It also begs the question: Why now?

When West Virginia experiences plunging employment rates and correspondingly higher unemployment rates, reporters never, ever question their validity. Celebratory economic statistics, including, especially, employment rates, often invite the expression of doubt of often-doubtful reporters.

Yet, despite what has been written, I don’t see U.S. and state figures as being necessarily at odds with each other. Both can be accurate and, perhaps, not fairly comparable. And, you should know that the two data sets have been different for decades. During his third term, in the 1980s, then-Gov. Arch Moore relied heavily on state figures, probably because they also looked better. Moore, a Republican, reliably received criticism for doing so. His predecessor, Jay Rockefeller, leaned on state figures, too. Rockefeller, a Democrat, reliably escaped scrutiny, at least on this kind of issue.

In jobs data, I recommend the long view.

Highlighting a single set of statistics for praise or for critique can be misleading. In the pre-internet days, I recall the Daily Mail‘s bizarre practice of publishing midday stock prices, solely because they were the most recent from the news wires right up to setting plates before going to press. They were meaningless to our readers and provided no context for investors.

There is an old economics joke. One economist greets another economist at a cocktail party. “How is your wife?” she asks him. He replies, “Compared to whom?”

When it comes to employment data and the stock market, a single day is not the way. Rather, as my father would often caution, the trend is your friend. Here’s more context. At the end of 2015, West Virginia’s per capita income was $36,915, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. At the beginning of 2019, it was $40,873, a nearly 11 percent increase. Plus, state tax receipts are way up over the same period, although growth has flattened, mostly because energy prices are in the dumps.

With only tepid growth in the Huntington-Charleston market, representing 40 percent of the West Virginia non-energy economy, I would rate that the state on the whole is doing not necessarily well but certainly fairly better as wealth is on the rise.

Mark Sadd is a Charleston lawyer

and former Daily Mail business editor. Reach him at msadd@lewisglasser.com

or follow @mark_sadd on Twitter.

Funerals for Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Adkins, Dorsel - 11 a.m., Casto Funeral Home, Evans.

Anderson, William - 1 p.m., Foglesong-Casto Funeral Home, Mason.

Kalinoski, Peggy - 3 p.m., Goshen Baptist Church Cemetery, Kenna.

Pyles, Jack - 1 p.m., Wilcoxen Funeral Home, Point Pleasant.