Aaron Sojourner

Real-Time Scholarship

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

It’s been a particularly busy year for labor economist Aaron Sojourner. An associate professor in the Carlson School’s Department of Work and Organizations, Sojourner has adjusted his research to respond in real time to critical issues facing the community and the nation.

“I definitely value being a scholar and doing scholarly work,” Sojourner says. “Also the economy and the labor market--and human flourishing, which is what labor economists study to some extent—are important to people beyond the scholarly community.” It’s crucial, he adds, “to bring social science evidence to public discussions when the community is grappling with decisions, wrestling with opportunities or challenges. We should do this with all the best tools and knowledge available.”

In recent months, Sojourner has published research on the challenges of childcare access issues during the pandemic. He’s also co-authored a report on COVID-19 screening practices in the workplace and presented a study on which employees are more likely to advocate for practices that can protect them from the novel coronavirus and other workplace health and safety hazards.

The pandemic-related research that’s garnered Sojourner the most attention is his work forecasting jobless claims. In early March, “I started noticing that news articles coming out from around the country,” he recalls. “In many states, officials were holding press conferences to say that newly laid-off workers were swamping their offices with unemployment insurance applications. They were reporting these big spikes all of a sudden. I wanted to understand what was happening in a systematic way.”

Instead of waiting for official government reports, Sojourner turned to a different tool—Google Trends. “I figured that the way people were going to look to find unemployment insurance is through a web search,” he says. The search data Sojourner dug into suggested unprecedentedly massive spikes in unemployment claims in nearly every state.

Sojourner tweeted out his findings, which caught the attention of Paul Goldsmith-Pinkham, an associate professor of finance at the Yale University School of Management. Based on their analysis of news reports and Google data, they estimated that nationwide, there’d be 3.4 million new claims for the week ending March 21. Several Wall Street firms had estimated 800,000 to 900,000; Goldman Sachs predicted 2.25 million. On March 26, the official report came out: 3.3 million claims. They continued to forecast claims each week prior to official data releases using search interest as a proxy. Because the country was experiencing such rapid change and the analysis was so timely, the New York Times, Washington Post, Vox, and many other outlets covered the work.

This might not be the kind of research many might associate with the term scholarship. “But it’s something that was important for our community leaders and political leaders to understand in a timely way so that they can make good decisions about allocating resources and aid if it’s needed,” Sojourner says. The U.S. Senate passed the CARES Act on March 25, the day before the official report of 3.3 million new claims came out. “By signaling the magnitude of the layoff wave happening earlier in the week, We made a small contribution to informing that debate,” Sojourner says, by helping Congress recognize the magnitude of the potential disaster confronting working people.

In addition to writing articles and papers, Sojourner has been interviewed numerous times on a variety of media outlets regarding the pandemic’s effect on the labor market. He’s also active on Twitter. But Sojourner’s work as a kind of public intellectual isn’t about policy advocacy per se. Instead, he seeks to uncover information that can help shape public understanding of complex social issues.

Sojourner says that public interaction also helps inform his scholarship. “I learn how to better understand the questions people are struggling to understand,” he notes. “It helps me shape my own research agenda and keep my research relevant to the concerns of the community.”

This article appeared in the Fall 2020 Discovery magazine

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Carlson School faculty experts researched a myriad of aspects of the pandemic in real time. In this edition, you'll see how state and local governments dealt with the economic downturn, how that economic anxiety was worse for some individuals and groups than others, and how the Supply Chain and Operations Department shifted its research agendas and curriculum to help educate policymakers, media, and the public on how to address these issues.

Fall 2020 table of contents