The U.S. Census Bureau is finally giving the services sector its due. Its new quarterly survey of service-industry activity will give businesses information to monitor industry trends, make hiring decisions and develop immediate operational strategies. "It's the start of a broader effort by the Census Bureau to give us a better picture of the importance that services play in our economy," says Bob Vastine, president of the Coalition of Service Industries in Washington, DC.
As the Census Bureau's first new economic indicator in 30 years, the first "Quarterly Services Survey" was released on September 13, 2004, and covered the fourth quarter of 2003 and the first and second quarters of 2004. The study measures operating revenue across three basic service sectors: the information sector; the professional, scientific and technical services sector; and the administrative and support, waste management and remediation services sector. Included in this first round of data are telecommunications, software publishing, computer system design, media and employment services. In 2005, the survey will incorporate data from hospitals and nursing and residential-care facilities.
While service industries account for half of U.S. economic activity, the previous data collection didn't reflect the sector's growing significance. Indeed, the only measurement of service-industry activity came from economic censuses taken every five years and an annual survey. It left a critical measurement gap, which was evident in the aftermath of the dotcom bust in the late 1990s. Access to more timely statistical data would no doubt have helped some business owners avoid serious missteps at the time. "We would have known better what was happening, while it was happening, because of this survey," Vastine says.
If the survey response rate is any indication, service companies are eager to end the information shortfall. "The rate of participation is high," says Vastine. "The Census Bureau is pleased that the companies being questioned about their performance are responding in substantial numbers."