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How to read the monthly jobs report for better business stories

October 26, 2017

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With a bit of extra effort business journalists can get a much better story out of the jobs report. (Credit: Pixabay user skeeze)
With a bit of extra effort business journalists can get a much better story out of the jobs report. (Credit: Pixabay user skeeze)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly jobs report is a cross-section of business, economics, politics and social concern that affects everyone. Typically you’ll see a quick summary of how many jobs were added the previous month, what economists predicted, and whether the results are “good” or “bad.”

There’s much more in the monthly report. The more you know about it, the more nuanced, insightful and interesting a story you can write.

The jobs report is technically called the Employment Situation and comes out the first Friday after the close of a month. For example, the October 2017 report will be released at 8:30 AM Eastern time on November 3.

The data comes from two different surveys. One is for households: a sample of 60,000 focused on the job status, whether employed, unemployed, or not in the labor market, for people 16-years-old and older. The other is for businesses: about 147,000 businesses and government agencies representing about one-third of non-farm employees. The large samples, and presumed accuracy, are one reason so many closely follow the results. But as with all sampling there could be surprises, as the level of confidence is 90 percent.  Click here to find more technical details about the methodology.

There are multiple table links at the end of the summary report that lead to more insights. Here are some of the data to look at when writing about jobs.

Where the jobs get added

Most stories you see or hear focus on the number of jobs created. That’s all well, but it’s not particularly descriptive. Are there industries that did better or worse than average? Maybe industry segments that could be important if you cover a given sector? Go to the establishment data, Tables B-1 through B-9 at the end of the full release and you’ll see job additions by subsector and average weekly hours, hourly earnings and weekly earnings by major sector.

Unemployment vs. underemployment

The official unemployment rate, called the U-3 rate, is a gross number and excludes a number of categories of people also not working. By looking at “alternative measures of labor underutilization” you will get a broader sense of how many people aren’t fully employed. The number includes those who have been unemployed for longer periods of time, anyone “marginally attached to the labor force,” which includes those have given up looking, and people who work only part-time even though they want full-time work. As an example of how these can differ, the U-3 rate for August 2017 was 4.5 percent. The U-6 rate—including all marginally attached to the labor force and those forced to work part-time because of economic conditions—was 8.6 percent.

Breakout by race, gender, and age

The overall unemployment numbers are just that, a blended representation of everyone. But you can dig deeper. Using the U-3 rates, Table A-1 shows employment status by sex and age. Table A-2 shows employment status by race, sex and age. Table A-3 focuses on sex and age for Latino and Hispanic populations. Other tables add insights, such as  employment status without seasonal adjustments that government economists use to remove seasonal patterns that can make numbers look bigger or smaller.


  • Erik Sherman

    Erik is an independent journalist and author who primarily covers business, economics, finance, technology, politics, and legal/regulatory, while elegantly expressing the complex and often incorporating data analysis.

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