Alex Turk

Alex Turk
Degree: 
Ph.D. Economics
Year Graduated: 
2000

Alex Turk is the Supervisory Economist for the Policy and Program Impact Lab at the Internal Revenue Service, Research Applied Analytics & Statistics Division. An Iowa State alum, Turk earned his undergraduate economics degree (1988) and Ph.D. in economics (2000). 

“I’ve been at the IRS for 25 years this June. I got hired in 1995, when I was still writing my dissertation. I was lucky because the job market was kind of tight in those years, especially the academic market.”

Luckily, Turk interviewed with the IRS at the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association (AAEA) meetings the January before. Though he didn’t get the position in St. Louis he wanted, he was later offered another one in St. Paul, where he started as a grade 11 economist.

Getting started

“When I first started, it was in somewhat of a start-up research group that had only been around for about a year. I moved up in the ranks, became a senior research analyst or team leader. In 2012, I got the opportunity to start the collection division as a senior manager, to create an embedded analytics group, where I hired the staff and set the whole thing up. In 2016, I was approached by headquarters research to come over and lead a group of existing employees.”

Today he’s the head of a team of eight analysts, working with them on projects with executives in other parts of the IRS, as well as several different initiatives to identify answers to strategic questions.

“A big part of what we do is develop new analytics to improve business processes to improve service to taxpayers, to better identify noncompliant taxpayers, and to reduce the resource costs to the different parts of the IRS.”

The Internal Revenue Service is a very diverse organization with nearly 80,000 employees, including seasonal workers. That number is down from past years due to budget pressures and the increase in electronic filing, available since the mid-90s.

“Now 90% of the individual returns come in electronically. I remember when we first starting doing analysis and marketing on electronic filing—we were hoping to get to 10%. The data comes in better, because the data correction happens before it even gets to us. It’s easier and obviously there’s an efficiency gain. Before that, there was telephone filing, similar to how they used to do touch tone registration for classes here at Iowa State.”

The IRS has a large data warehouse for research, containing different types of administrative data from tax return filings, W-2’s, 1099s, from actions on accounts, such as payments, or audits. It’s all in this warehouse for research for analytical purposes in a de-identified manner. There’s a linking data, but no names, SSNs or EINs.

Like many other federal agencies, the IRS posts its job openings on USAjobs.com. They do have some internships, but more are student volunteers—grad students who are working with the IRS and their major professor to look at issues that are important for tax administration or tax policy.

The Pathways Program is for recent grads. The application program is for a two-year temporary appointment eventually leading to full employment.

“Another good avenue for graduates with advanced degrees is the Presidential Management Fellows program. If you get selected to the program, you are matched with a federal agency. You are in the program for two years, and, if everything goes well, at the end of two years, you are converted to a permanent employee. During that time, you also have to detail out to another part of the IRS. We’ve hired many people this way.”

The IRS hires grads from multiple majors in addition to economics: statistics, operations research, IT, data science, and psychology to name a few. Many teams are cross-discipline, with people from different backgrounds, along with employees from the business or operations divisions, such as collections or exam. These employees know their processes and their IT systems, making it easier to develop models or analytics or answer policy questions.

Continuing the work

Turk’s graduate dissertation was on decisions on joining labor unions and the impact of union success in getting wage gains.

“What I was doing as a grad student, we still have the same process today. We have multiple sources of information to put together in a way that makes sense. I think doing the grunt work on the data then was part of what helped prepare me to succeed at the IRS. Now I’m still doing all that to answer strategic questions. It’s just that the volume of data is so much larger today and the tools are so much better. The scope of what you can do just gets bigger and bigger.”

 

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