Shape of Phila.'s economy can be found in Census publication

Some economic statistics are just more understandable than others.

Weekly jobless claims? Pretty straightforward. Producer prices? Less so.

On Thursday, the U.S. Census Bureau released the latest edition of its annual County Business Patterns publication, which really has something for everyone.

The data, which have been issued every year since 1964, are deceptively simple: employment, payroll, and number of establishments, by sector and down to the county level.

I spent part of the afternoon searching all sorts of sectors using the new edition of County Business Patterns on the Census Bureau website here. Simply call up the Philadelphia metropolitan statistical area, and you can see the major sources of payroll and employment, and they’re not mining and agriculture.

County Business Patterns takes its snapshot of employment for the pay period that includes March 12. The most recent edition covers 2008, so this is backward-looking data. We were barely four months into a U.S. recession that began in December 2007.

The 2,565,967 employees the Census Bureau counted in the 11-county Philadelphia region on March 12, 2008, worked for 148,645 total establishments with an annual payroll of $125 billion. (An establishment is a business at a single location. A company, such as a fast-food chain, may have multiple establishments in a region.)

If nothing else, County Business Patterns confirms many of the things people say about Philadelphia’s diverse economy. For example, it is a little heavy on health care. The health-care and social-assistance sector accounted for the most employees, with 428,752 people at 16,498 establishments with annual payroll of $18.3 billion.

The No. 2 sector was retail trade, with 312,379 employees at 20,540 establishments with annual payroll of $7.8 billion. Note that retail has more locations than health care with half the payroll.

Manufacturing, which we always lament has left the Workshop of the World for good, still accounted for 211,413 employees at 5,773 establishments providing an annual payroll of $12.2 billion.

By March 12, 2008, the recession that we now know would destroy more than eight million jobs nationwide had merely slowed the growth of payrolls here. Overall employment in the Philadelphia region was higher by 4,398 people compared with the same week in 2007.

Even so, the finance and insurance sector had shed 17,998 employees in just a year, while retailers had cut 8,786 by March 2008. Conversely, health-care employers added 11,070 employees. But with the addition of 13,986 people, the biggest job creator was the business-support sector that contains temporary help, janitorial, security, and other service providers.

Just as the publication’s name implies, you can delve into the employment makeup of individual counties. In 2008, the city of Philadelphia had 590,331 people working at 26,729 establishments with annual payroll of $28.9 billion. All were higher than the previous year.

The second-biggest employment center in the area remained Montgomery County, where 479,953 people drew a paycheck at 26,437 establishments with annual payroll of $25.9 billion.

On Monday, I’ll look deeper into a specific sector and see how Philadelphia ranks against other metro areas.