Ithaca, N.Y. — In 2012, the federal government published statistics showing that the Ithaca region had lost a staggering 4,100 jobs.
Local officials struggled to understand how they could have failed to notice such a precipitous drop. The reported decline was so surprising that CNN made note of it.
But a few months later, the federal agency revised its findings: The Ithaca region, the government said, had actually added about 1,100 jobs over the relevant period.
This month, the same federal agency — the Bureau of Labor Statistics — has again released statistics showing a massive drop in jobs in Ithaca. According to those figures, no metro region in New York state lost a greater percentage of jobs in 12 months than Ithaca.
But Ithaca officials say that every other indicator they have points to job growth over that period. Their frustrated history with the BLS is not helping them take the federal data as credible.
“We’re feeling that those numbers are suspect,” said Martha Armstrong, vice president and director of economic development planning for Tompkins County Area Development, the economic development agency for the county, of the latest statistics.
“They’re looking at it from the 20,000 foot level instead of down on the street.”
This isn’t just an esoteric debate about the number crunching of a little-known government agency, Armstrong said.
Instead, what’s at risk in the bad data goes far beyond the data — and, possibly, to the future economic health of the region.
“Developers and investors are looking to invest in a place that’s doing well, in a place where their investment will have a return,” Armstrong said. “If they’re seeing, ‘Wow, Ithaca’s losing jobs like crazy,’ they might not.’”
In an interview, the BLS’ Chief Regional Economist Martin Kohli defended the agency’s technique for gathering the jobs data.
“We used the same methodology we use everywhere,” Kohli said. “These numbers are based on a sample of what employers in Ithaca are telling us.”
Kohli said the BLS will revise the data if it proves inaccurate.
“We’re not going to be really concerned with whether a number is believable; we’re concerned with facts we can measure,” Kohli said, acknowledging that the recently released figures might not be statistically significant.
“We’re in the business of trying to measure things we can verify; we don’t think what people think is a reasonable number.”
In an email, economist Bruce Bergman of the BLS also pointed to the agency’s FAQ page, which lists caveats and acknowledgements of potential flaws in local jobs data.
The BLS data showed the region losing 1,300 jobs in 12 months. Out of 372 metro areas nationwide, only 7 saw larger percentage drops in non-farm payrolls.
But JobsEQ, a software program that tracks jobs statistics, is showing job growth locally, according to Armstrong, of TCAD.
Additionally, Chmura Economics & Analytics shows that Tompkins County saw a growth of more than 300 jobs, according to Armstrong. The downtown career center is seeing more and more people get jobs, she said.
Stranger still is that the feds are attributing 1,000 job losses to the “Education and Health Services” sector. That’s almost certainly false, Armstrong said, because there have been no reports of major layoffs at Ithaca College, Cornell University or Tompkins County Community College that would account for the shift.
“I can’t believe it’s correct,” Armstrong said of the federal numbers.
Beyond discouraging investment, erroneous federal data can prove harmful in other ways, Armstrong said.
For instance, Armstrong said, people who have dropped out of the workforce may be less likely to seek work if they see discouraging job numbers.
“They see the area’s not growing, they’ll say, ‘Jeez, why should I go back into the workforce?,’ ” Armstrong said.
At this point, Armstrong said, the federal government’s efforts to provide data on local economies may be doing more harm than good.
She recalled a conversation she had with BLS officials in 2012.
“I said, ‘These numbers are so bad it would be better if you weren’t doing them,’” Armstrong said. “I told them that on the phone.”