Construction job growth heightens labor shortage

Construction industry employment rose by 41,000 jobs in February and increased by 346,000 jobs in the past year, triple the growth rate for all non-farm payroll jobs, according to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Construction job growth has been rising steadily during the past 12 months, with residential construction employment increasing 3.9 percent, nonresidential building up 3.2 percent and heavy and civil engineering construction up 7.2 percent.

While single- and multi-family residential construction will probably taper off, the outlook for nonresidential construction is positive for the remainder of 2006, said Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America. “Growth appears likely for construction of factories, hospitals and other health care facilities, some retail categories, freight transportation and distribution, refineries and alternative energy facilities and most public construction categories,” he said.

Even with the addition of 346,000 workers in the past year, finding qualified employees is still difficult for contractors in some areas.

“Carpenters, laborers, pile drivers, equipment operators and concrete finishers in addition to project engineers, project managers, superintendents and estimators have all been hard to come by,” said Dave Price, operations manager at American Bridge Company in Orlando, Fla. “The effect of all the re-construction work being performed in the Louisiana and Mississippi areas has had a profound impact on our ability to hire quality personnel.”

Cary Hegreberg, executive director of the Montana Contractor’s Association, agrees.

“Anecdotally, nearly all jobs are harder to fill, especially the trades, carpenters, equipment operators,” Hegreberg said. “In the words of one member: ‘If they’ve got a pulse and can pass a drug test, we’ll hire them.'”

Surprisingly, despite the rise in construction employment, wages have risen only moderately, Simonson said. The seasonally adjusted average wage of hourly construction employees in February was $19.70, just 2.2 percent higher than the figure for February 2005.