By mid-December, nearly 5 million American businesses, including 130,000 in the construction industry, will have received a questionnaire from the government that they must complete and return or else face legal penalties. It’s the law. But, it’s also an opportunity.

I’m talking about the 2012 Economic Census. The U.S. Census Bureau is sending forms to nearly all large and midsize businesses as well as to a sample of the smallest establishments. When you receive your form, don’t think of it as just another mandatory paperwork burden courtesy of Uncle Sam; it’s really your opportunity to participate in something important that will benefit you and many other people. Your responses, which will be kept confidential, will help build a body of economic information that you and other business owners, governmental agencies, and trade associations, such as the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), can use for vital research and strategic planning purposes.

Specifically, federal, state and local governments and statistical agencies use census statistics to validate and update key performance measures, including federal measures of total domestic production, such as the gross domestic product, business productivity and capacity utilization. Federal and state agencies look to the Economic Census data to measure the effectiveness of programs, such as those related to business development and assistance, minority contracting, trade, job training, taxation and other public policy issues. Local governments and communities even take the data into account in determining how best to attract new businesses to the local tax base.

Business organizations and advocacy groups use census statistics to assess industry growth and change, prepare economic forecasts and produce educational materials. Among many other things, NECA has found this type of information helpful in defining its legislative priorities and in outreach efforts involving the lawmakers. It also enables NECA to gauge market share; this helps us and our industry partners set and carry out effective labor relations activities. In addition, our association sometimes uses census data in developing research reports and management guidance and projecting future trends to improve member services.

Individual businesses use census statistics to develop business plans, locate facilities, define markets, assess competition, attract investment, manage sales and evaluate efficiency. The U.S. Census Bureau has created a website at www.census.gov/econ with detailed information on how to complete the questionnaire and specific examples of how companies can use the resulting data. All the tables from the most recently completed Economic Census (for calendar year 2007) are available at the American Fact Finder site (http://factfinder2.census.gov).

The U.S. government has been surveying business conditions in one form or another since 1810. In the 1930s, the economic survey became an entity separate from the regular population census, which is conducted every 10 years, because the demand for and use of economic statistics grew exponentially in the wake of the Great Depression. (Having accurate economic information should also prove useful as we dig out from the Great Recession.) Title 13 of the U.S. Code, enacted in the 1950s, established a regular five-year cycle for the Economic Census.

Of course, the 2012 Economic Census has some features not available in former editions. First off, there are those aforementioned helpful websites. In addition, businesses now have the option to report on paper or electronically. The 2012 Economic Census also features some all-new economic classifications, new nationwide data by economic sector, and fresh details for more than 1,000 separate industries and more than 40,000 geographic areas. Initial findings will be released in December 2013.

There are approximately 500 different versions of the basic census form. Each is tailored to a particular industry or group of industries. Single-establishment businesses will get one form. Multi-establishment businesses will get forms for each separate business location, and there also will be some questions about the company as a whole.

When you receive your 2012 Economic Census form, please fill it out as accurately and thoroughly as possible and return it to the U.S. Census Bureau by the Feb. 12, 2013, deadline. There is a lot riding on your response, so I thank you in advance.

I would also like to thank all the electrical contractors who have responded to the Economic Census in the past and to all the surveys that NECA conducts. There are several that enable us to conduct practical research and publish important reference material, such as financial benchmarkers. You see, like the U.S. Census Bureau, NECA believes in gathering real data from real industry participants in strict confidence and turning it into useful, beneficial information that can help you in the real world!