Monday, March 23, 2015

BLS Employment Projections Are Unreliable (Michael Simkovic)

Labor economists have long cautioned against the misuse of Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) employment projections.

In 2004, Michael Horrigan at the BLS explained that the BLS projections should not be used to value education or to attempt to predict shortages or surpluses of educated labor.  Instead, the value of education should be measured based on earnings premiums—the measure used in The Economic Value of a Law Degree and Timing Law School

Horrigan wrote:

The general problem with addressing the question whether the U.S. labor market will have a shortage of workers in specific occupations over the next 10 years is the difficulty of projecting, for each detailed occupation, the dynamic labor market responses to shortage conditions. . . .  Since the late 1970s, average premiums paid by the labor markets to those with higher levels of education have increased.


It is the growing distance, on average, between those with more education, compared with those with less, that speaks to a general preference on the part of employers to hire those with skills associated with higher levels of education.

The BLS takes the same position in its FAQ.  The BLS does not project labor shortages or surpluses.

In 2006, Richard Freeman back-tested the BLS projections and found that “the projections of future demands for skills lack the reliability to guide policies on skill development.”

The BLS employment projections are not only unreliable.  Comparing occupation-specific employment projections to number of graduates in related fields systematically underestimates the value of higher education.

In 2011 David Neumark, Hans Johnson, & Marisol Cuellar Mejia wrote:

If there are positive returns to education levels above those indicated as the skill requirement for an occupation in the BLS data – and especially if these wage premia are similar to those in other occupations – then relying on the BLS skill requirements likely substantially understates projected skill demands.


For nearly every occupational grouping, wage returns are higher for more highly-educated workers even if the BLS says such high levels of education are not necessary. For example . . . for management occupations, the estimated coefficients for Master’s, professional, and doctoral degrees are all above the estimated coefficient for a Bachelor’s degree, which is the BLS required level. . . ..


If the BLS numbers are correct, we might expect to see higher unemployment and greater underemployment of more highly-educated workers in the United States.  As noted earlier, we do not find evidence of this kind of underemployment based on earnings data. Similarly, labor force participation rates are higher and unemployment rates are lower for more highly educated workers.

(note—above I link to and quote the 2013 published article; Neumark et al. said much the same thing in their 2011 working paper).

Neumark et. al. also noted that recent BLS projections appeared to be much too low for managerial and legal services occupations.

Starting around 2012 many law professors and pundits argued that the number of job openings for lawyers projected by the BLS relative to the number of expected law graduates suggested that too many students were attending law school and that they would not get much value out of their degrees.

In 2012, Deborah Merritt wrote:

The Bureau [of Labor Statistic]’s occupational employment projections . . . answer the very question that many law school applicants want to know: How many new lawyers will the economy be able to absorb this decade?


The Bureau currently estimates that the economy will create 218,800 job openings for lawyers and judicial law clerks during the decade stretching from 2010 through 2020. That number, unfortunately, falls far short of the number of aspiring lawyers that law schools are graduating.


The oversupply of entry-level lawyers deprives many graduates of any opportunity to practice law. At the same time, the lawyer surplus constrains entry-level salaries.

Merritt notes the possibility that law might be a versatile degree with value outside of legal practice.

In 2012, Paul Campos wrote:

Further evidence that law degrees are unlikely to become more valuable going forward can be found in the projections of the Bureau for Labor Statistics (BLS) . . . [which suggest many more law graduates than job openings].”

 In 2013, Brian Tamanaha wrote:

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates about 22,000 lawyer openings annually through 2020 (counting departures and newly created jobs). Yet law schools yearly turn out more than 40,000 graduates. This bleak job market coexists with astronomically high tuition.

Several and journalists also started comparing BLS projections and job openings to make much the same argument.

In 2013, unaware of the problems with job openings projections, I (Simkovic) suggested that projections might be used to make adjustments to more objective historical baselines for risk-based student loan pricing

On the chance that BLS projections that perform poorly in other contexts perform well in the legal education context, Frank McIntyre and I analyzed the extent to which BLS projections predict law graduate outcomes (earnings premiums).  The answer is: no better than random chance.  

As in other areas, BLS employment projections are not reliable or meaningful for predicting earnings premiums and are therefore not useful for valuing legal education.

But what about the number of job openings for lawyers?  Can BLS projections at least predict that reasonably well?

The answer appears to be “no.”  Recent analysis by the BLS suggests that their projection methods—the ones we analyze in Timing Law School—have systematically under-predicted job openings for lawyers.  

The BLS is considering changing its methodology to one that it believes will be more accurate.   Ted Seto has discussed this issue extensively. 

It is unclear at this point if the new job opening projections method will predict earnings premiums better than the old ones.  In any case, that was never their intended purpose, and it would be safer to predict earnings premiums and value education based on historical earnings premiums.

It remains likely that many law school graduates will not practice law.  Such has been the case in the past, and such is the case in other fields.   Many engineering, math and science graduates do not work as engineers, mathematicians or scientists in their fields of study.  Most fields of study do not have a one-to-one correspondence with a particular occupation, but are more broadly useful in the labor market, and law is no exception.  In spite of many individuals working outside their degree fields, higher education typically has been, and likely will remain, an investment with positive returns.

To best way to tell whether there is too much or too little investment in education is to consider relative returns that take into account risks and variability in employment.  Are the returns to education higher or lower than returns that can be had elsewhere with similar levels of risk?  The returns to education are generally much higher, and risk does not appear to explain this difference adequately.  The high relative returns to education suggest underinvestment in education.  

(A word of caution—BLS employment projections should not be confused with the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics (OES); the OES remains a useful and important, albeit imperfect, source of data).

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