Job fair

Hundreds of unemployed or underemployed people showed up at last month's jobs fair at the Dane County Job Center on Aberg Avenue, with the line extending out the door and down the sidewalk.

When the statewide job numbers were released recently, it showed Wisconsin with 12,400 fewer jobs in September compared to August.

The loss included 11,500 government positions, with 8,400 of those at the local level.

So what accounted for the big drop in public-sector jobs last month?

The short answer is nobody knows for sure because the figures are statistical estimates and are often revised months later.

But it does appear that education jobs were a big piece of it.

Officials with the state Department of Workforce Development (DWD) compared the September 2011 figures with September 2010 and found an overall drop of 4,000 education jobs, which could range from teachers and administrators to support staff and janitors.

"The statistics don't provide the detail at the local level to answer the question definitively," says John Dipko, DWD spokesman. "With that said, we believe local education accounts for the majority of the drop in government jobs from August to September."

Dan Thompson, executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, was a bit surprised to see the numbers showing 8,400 fewer local government jobs. He says cities and villages have been eliminating positions for years and are just about tapped out in trimming staff.

"You still need to pick up the trash and plow the snow so there's not a whole lot more cutting that can go on," says Thompson, whose group represents some 580 local units of governments.

Dan Rossmiller, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, says the job losses in education are disappointing but not surprising. He says school districts are still cash-strapped, despite the changes to collective bargaining laws and increased health care and pension payments by employees.

"I don't think we've lost that many teachers but there is no question each district is laying people off," he says.

A longer explanation of the September jobs report is that employment numbers are often confusing and contradictory -- but are probably the best tool available.

The monthly reports issued by the state are based on figures compiled by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

To estimate the number of jobs, the BLS surveys hundreds of companies of all sizes from around the state. If not enough surveys are collected, follow-up phone calls are used.

The DWD gathers job data from local units of governments, the UW System and the Department of Administration.

The numbers are compiled and then "seasonally adjusted" to account for things like changes in weather, harvests, major holidays and the opening and closing of schools. What you end up with is a "statistical snapshot" of the number of jobs for each particular month.

"I've been doing this long enough, I don't get too bent out of shape over the monthly changes," says Dennis Winters, chief of the state Office of Economic Advisors.

But with economic issues front and center, the public -- and the media -- have been more focused than ever on the monthly jobs numbers.

Gov. Scott Walker has only heightened interest in the BLS figures with his pledge to create 250,000 new private-sector jobs during his first term in office.

Unfortunately, for Walker politically and the state as a whole, it doesn't look like Wisconsin will come anywhere near that goal.

An economic forecast by Walker's own administration released last week predicts Wisconsin will fall far short of adding 250,000 new private-sector jobs by 2015.

In its quarterly Economic Outlook, the Department of Revenue estimates that by 2014 the state will have added only 136,000 jobs in the private sector compared with 2010. That estimate is down 43,000 from a previous report released in June.

The report warns Wisconsin employment will not return to the 2008 peak of 2.9 million jobs until early 2015. That's only about 100,000 more jobs than when Walker took office.

The question is whether voters will hold the 250,000 jobs promise against Walker if he ends up facing a recall election next year.

"You'd hope that people would understand in a campaign a lot of rhetoric flies out," says Russ Kashian, a professor of economics at UW-Whitewater.

But Kashian acknowledges Wisconsin is caught up in a global economic downturn. He says each time a job is eliminated here -- whether public or private sector -- it makes progress that much more difficult.

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"It's like trying to fill a bucket with a hole in it," he says.

Andy Feldman, who this year founded a non-partisan economic analysis website called BadgerStat, agrees that adding jobs in the short term will remain a challenge.

"In terms of the 250,000 jobs goal, I give Walker credit for being bold and setting a highly visible target for Wisconsin to aim for," says Feldman. "The problem, though, is that governors can only affect private-sector job growth at the margins."

A former executive assistant at DWD in the Doyle administration, Feldman says he'd like to see the same kind of challenge at all levels of state government that Walker put on himself.

"I'd like to see the governor create stretch goals for every state agency," he says.

So far job creation has been a tough road.

The estimated 12,400 jobs lost in September across the state mark the third straight monthly decline. While the loss was concentrated in the public sector, private-sector employment was also down.

The state lost an estimated 900 jobs among private-sector employers, including some 3,000 in the manufacturing sector. The BLS numbers showed gains of 3,000 jobs in health care and 1,500 in construction. But the state shed jobs in manufacturing, retail trade and professional and business services.

"Clearly, the recovery has lost some of the strength seen in early 2011, when jobs grew steadily through the first six months of the year," says a new report from the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, a UW-Madison think tank.

The COWS report notes Wisconsin now has a jobs deficit of 195,300 -- the difference between the number of jobs Wisconsin has now and what it needs to return to pre-recession levels.

"The jobs deficit should be a national and state priority," the group says.

Whether Republican, Democrat or Wall Street occupier, nobody is arguing that point.