ITHACA, N.Y. — There are two words to describe Ithaca’s old jobs reports: “phantom jobs”.

If this piece were being written with the original jobs estimates, the numbers, averaged out for the whole year, would look something like this:

Doesn’t look too shabby, right? Now here are the revised numbers:

When over 7,000 jobs disappear, one tends to want a good explanation. Enter Martha Armstrong, Vice President and Director of Economic Development for Tompkins County Area Development (TCAD). It’s her job to explain the large change that leaves most folks confused and incredulous.

Over the phone, Armstrong chuckled; she was expecting a lot of questions to come her way. But to her, the real news isn’t the large downward adjustment going back decades.

“The news to me is that finally we have the correct numbers in Tompkins County, or certainly closer to the real numbers,” said Armstrong.

The issue has to do with a type of job category called “presumed non-covered“, or PNC. These are jobs that offer no defined benefits package – children working the family business, prisoners stamping license plates, some contractors, and most common to college towns like Ithaca, students performing work-study jobs on campus. These jobs aren’t covered by the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ quarterly wage reports, so they’ve been hard to calculate – for many years, it was left up to individual states to figure it out, and report their results as part of the monthly figures.

New York State’s approach was essentially to assign about 20,000 jobs to Tompkins County. That was it. According to Armstrong, TCAD has always thought that number was unreasonably high.

“I’ve talked with PhDs who have said that number is awfully big, and other college towns don’t have this huge disparity (between quarterly reports and job counts). They couldn’t figure it out. It turns out the NYS Department of Labor had a formulation that gave us all these extra phantom student jobs. Those PNCs were always just sort of a weird number, and it turns out they were phantom numbers for decades.”

“The (Federal) Bureau of Labor Statistics has now come up at the national level and said ‘this is the way to model how many students will be working on campus’. Now everybody is getting the same treatment state to state, it’s a consistent methodology across the states. That has caused some pain along the way, but ultimately the statistics are moving in the right direction.”

So the short of it is, it’s not that the county lost 7,000 jobs. It’s that these jobs, mostly student jobs on the college campuses, never existed.

On the balance, the numbers still show a similar growth in local employment over the past decade (1.4% per year, now 1.3% per year). But now instead of 1200 jobs added over the past year, it’s 600.

That’s probably going to get revised though. The preliminary numbers for October-December 2016 show very little job growth and even job losses compared to October-December 2015. Yet right after that, January 2017 shows a huge increase of 3,300 jobs from January 2016, a 5.5% increase that is among the top in the nation.

In all reality, the numbers are probably somewhat higher for the last months of 2016, and January 2017’s spike in employment is more modest than it appears. The losses and the huge gain were both tied to the healthcare and education job sector, which is a perennial strong but steady performer. Plus, overall job growth tends to be fairly steady here, as Tompkins County isn’t exactly a boom-bust economy, if one goes by the usual statistics. But, as the state has demonstrated, buyer beware.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.