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New construction industry data highlights the jobs crisis

construction industry

By Flickr user Robinson Film Center

A number of interesting industry reports  this week were overshadowed, understandably, by the catastrophe in Japan and other world events.

One sector you might want to revisit soon, however, is the construction industry.  This spring season, typically a time for accelerated activity in housing and commercial building, offers a natural peg for taking a look at the drastically curbed job market for skilled trades, laborers and other administrative staff in the world of construction.

This new report from the Associated General Contractors of America details tens of thousands of construction industry jobs lost nationwide over the past year – note the handy state ranking page, which also shows month-over-month gains or losses from December 2010 through January 2011.

As a follow-up to this survey, the 33,000-member trade group this week published (PDF)  recommendations for stimulating the industry, from tax breaks to trade rule changes to boosting upgrades to the nation’s infrastructure.   The document is worth perusing for detailed job-loss data (since 2007) broken down by metropolitan area.

You can take the recommendations to area building trades organizations or companies,to your region’s economic development arm, to bankers and to trade unions for feedback about feasibility, potential job gains from specific projects, etc.   One idea:  Try to map projects that really are getting under way in 2011 and break down the type of employment, wages, etc. those projects generate.  Bank branches and drug stores seem to pop up on every corner regardless of the economy – how many workers does it take to build one store or branch, and what do they earn?  How competitive is the market for construction jobs and what makes the difference in getting hired?

And from a jobs, workplace, careers or economy perspective  you also can track some displaced construction workers.  What are they doing now; how have their skills translated to other occupations (or not) and what’s changed financially for their household since the building slump began?   Find these workers through unions, your state’s workforce commission, ads for handyman services or word of mouth on job sites.

Another angle from the general contractors’ trade group:  The whammy on building trades of the high cost of raw materials. Prices are up more than 6 percent over the past year, outpacing the producer price index in general.  On individual categories, price hikes range from 6 percent on insulation materials to as high as 20 percent for certain metal millwork, the report said.  (If you have building materials suppliers/producers in your area, this angle is certainly a fertile one to explore with those companies, too – what are commodity prices doing to their margins and how might increased global demand in the coming year – even from Japan – exacerbate that?)

The report also notes that competition is hampering builders from recouping increased costs; another great angle for local interviews.  Here’s a quote: 

“Weak demand for both public and privately financed construction, which is driving up the number of contractors bidding on projects, is forcing contractors to hold the line on bid prices, (ACG economist) Simonson noted. The producer price indexes for new office, industrial and warehouse construction rose less than one percent over 12 months and the index for new schools was up just 1.4 percent.”

Meanwhile the National Association of Home Builders monthly index also was released this week; it’s still at dismal levels and the trade group noted falling levels of housing starts and building permits nationwide; again, mapping your local permit activity county-by-county or in some other fashion would be a pithy story approach and one you could build on monthly in an interactive database or other format.

One other possible new source of experts:  Construction management and building programs at your state university.  I had no idea these schools were so prevalent, from the University of Florida to Purdue to Texas A&M.   Placement, enrollment, etc. activity would be an interesting addition to stories about the construction jobs market and  a way to broaden your story from the hard-hat stereotype to show the wide array of jobs that go into erecting new houses, plants and buildings.   The Texas A&M site, for example, as a pretty good semester-by-semester database of job placements including employer name and wage info; good starting place for hiring stories – maybe your nearby school has the same.

About the Author

Veteran financial writer Melissa Preddy served as a business writer, editor and columnist for The Detroit News from 1995 to 2008, is a Michigan-based freelance journalist. She now works as a writer and editor for a medical research unit of the University of Michigan Medical School. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Melissa Preddy

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