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February 1990, Vol. 113, No. 2
BLS compensation programs: what will users need?
Daniel J.B. Mitchell
Data on wages and compensation often have been less visible than data on price inflation and unemployment.1 During the 1990's and beyond, however, changes in compensation systems may well play a critical role in reconciling conflicting pressures in the American labor market. This will make it crucial for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to monitor and disseminate compensation data.
Although I am a frequent user of BLS data on compensation, I am not in a good position to know about the cost/benefit side of data collection. Judgments about that are made by the bureau and the political process. My role here is to put forward user preferences, against a backdrop of current BLS compensation programs and likely changes in the labor market.
Who needs what?
BLS currently operates nine primary programs which gather compensation information as shown in exhibit 1. The data produced by these programs are of varying degrees of interest to three constituency groups: (1) practitioners who set pay (managers, unions, and sometimes neutrals), (2) academics (researchers), and (3) government macro policymakers (along with private forecasters). Although their data needs overlap, their demands for further compensation information differ in many ways. Thus, BLS, faced with resource constraints, must make decisions concerning competing needs.
Practitioners' views are officially presented to BLS by union and management advisory committees. Federal Government policymakers are obviously in position to make their needs known and to influence resource allocation.2 Academics lack formal channels of input and, of course, have no direct control over resources. They have, nonetheless, been active supporters of BLS programs, particularly when budget cuts have been threatened.3 Development of formal communications between BLS and academic users of BLS compensation data would assist in balancing competing demands from users.
Here are ways in which each program might be improved from the viewpoint of their primary constituencies, especially in light of changing compensation practices and changing information technology.
This excerpt is from an article published in the February 1990 issue of the Monthly Labor Review. The full text of the article is available in Adobe Acrobat's Portable Document Format (PDF). See How to view a PDF file for more information.
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1 See Joseph P. Goldberg and William T. Moye, The First Hundred Years of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Washington Superintendent of Documents, 1985). In this official historical account, the authors devote substantially more space and attention to controversies and developments surrounding the Consumer Price Index and data relating to employment and unemployment than to compensation. A general history of BLS wage gathering and dissemination can be found in H.M. Douty, "A century of wage statistics: the BLS contribution," Monthly Labor Review, November 1984, pp. 16-28.
2 Thus, when the issue arose of publishing information on the absolute levels of wage and benefit costs as part of the Employment Cost Index, a combination of practitioner and government users were the main force in obtaining the new data. See G. Donald Wood, "A New Measure of the Cost of Compensation Components," Survey of Current Business, November 1988, p. 43. Academic researchers had long been interested in wage-versus-fringe tradeoffs, but their need for such data was frustrated when BLS stopped producing an earlier series on wage and fringe costs in the 1970's. The only private source of such data, an annual survey by the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, in not made available of academic use. Despite their concerns, academics had no formal avenues to express their continuing interest in data on wage and benefit costs.
3 Academic members of the Executive Board of the Industrial Relations Research Association (IRRA) made various efforts to have the IRRA take positions against proposed budget cutbacks affecting BLS. Because of the IRRA's tripartite structure, it was not possible to achieve consensus on this issue, but the organization has since maintained a statistical subcommittee to monitor budget and other developments affecting Federal statistical programs. (Records of the Board debates on this issue can be found in the association's 1981 and 1982 annual Proceedings volumes.) A related organization make up of major academic industrial relations programs, then known as the IR Center Directors, took a more active role in making contact with congressional representatives and staff and administration officials.
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