Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett likes to tell audiences that job growth in the county has outpaced neighboring Fairfax and the District in recent years, despite the ravages of the Great Recession.
According to county figures, Montgomery gained 32,500 jobs between 2010 and 2013, a 5.2 percent increase. It’s a record that Leggett and his economic development director Steve Silverman say surpasses both Fairfax (29,800 jobs, a 3.2 percent rise) and the District (28,856, a 3.5 percent rise) during the same period.
Leggett, running for a third term in the June Democratic primary against former county executive Doug Duncan and Council member Phil Andrews, attributed the gains to “putting our fiscal house in order and investing in the jobs of the future.”
But you won’t find the numbers that Leggett cites in data kept by the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which most state and local governments use to help measure economic activity. They show Montgomery gaining 15,223 jobs between 2010 and 2013, an increase of 3 percent. The BLS places the county a distant third behind Fairfax (26,520 jobs, a 4.5 percent rise) and the District (31,000,10 percent) from 2010 to 2013.
Why the difference? Montgomery uses numbers derived by Economic Modeling Specialists International (EMSI), a northern Idaho firm that, according to its Web site “turns labor market data into useful information that helps organizations understand the connection between economies, people and work.”
What that essentially means is that EMSI takes a more expansive approach to measuring job growth than BLS. It adds groups usually excluded by the federal survey, such as the self-employed, active duty military and certain federal workers. EMSI also mixes in a group called “extended proprietors.” These are people with full-time jobs and self-employed gigs on the side that also generate money.
In other words, if you’re a real estate attorney who sings in an ’80s wedding band on the weekends, that counts for two jobs in Ike Leggett’s Montgomery.
Is this reasonable? Silverman thinks so.
“I think the question is why everyone is continuing to use BLS data when everyone who is an economist acknowledges that it leaves out thousands of workers,” Silverman said. He adds that Montgomery comes out ahead in the EMSI analysis even if the wedding band category is removed.
“I think what it’s showing is that our job growth has been more robust,” Silverman said.
Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis and one of the area’s go-to economic forecasters, called Montgomery’s reliance on EMSI data “a convenient choice.”
The self-employed group reflected in the EMSI numbers will always expand in a bad economy, Fuller said, because it includes “people who can’t find jobs and who went to work for themselves.”
“I guess if we were looking at this non-politically and straightaway, BLS is the source,” he said.
Duncan, who describes Montgomery as in the midst of “a jobless recovery” under Leggett, says he’ll go with the BLS numbers. At a recent debate he invoked the name of Labor Secretary Tom Perez, a former County Council member, as an endorsement of the BLS numbers’ accuracy.
“I will take his word about what is happening with jobs in Montgomery County,” Duncan said.
Having declared “in Perez we trust,” Duncan goes on to make his own dubious claims about job creation. In his new policy manifesto, “Leadership in Action,” he says that Montgomery has lost more than 13,000 jobs since July 2013. That’s true, according to BLS data. But Duncan credits himself with “having helped in creating” more than 85,000 jobs during his tenure as county executive, a number that is nowhere to be found in BLS surveys.
According to the bureau, the county gained 54,677 jobs on Duncan’s watch between 1995 and 2006.
Asked where the higher number came from, the Duncan campaign supplied two pages from a county Web site created during Duncan’s tenure, but no source attribution.
The campaign also sent two 2006 stories from The Washington Post with even higher job numbers: 90,000 and 92,000 respectively. Also with no attribution.
Fuller said the whole business of elected officials counting up jobs misses the point. What matters is the kinds of jobs being created. Montgomery, and the rest of the country for that matter, are not generating enough jobs that can help people underwrite a middle class existence.
“We’re generating four food service jobs for every one job that pays more than $75,000 a year,” Fuller said.