Job losses in the construction industry last year may have been less dramatic than analysts and industry watchers have suggested, based on new data released by the U.S. Census Bureau this morning. The American Community Survey (ACS) shows 11,049,193 construction workers in the U.S. in 2007, or 134,747 fewer than in 2006. The Survey estimates that construction workers accounted for 7.7 percent of the total civilian workforce aged 16 years or older, or about two-tenths of a percentage point less than in 2006. Just fewer than 68 percent of all construction workers were full-time year-round employees, according to the survey’s estimates.
Census’ data combine residential and commercial construction, so it’s difficult to gauge how closely the survey reflects personnel reductions among home builders, especially when large and small builders were claiming they had laid off as many as half of their workers as buyer demand plummeted last year.
For example, in fiscal 2007, big public builder Lennar Corp. dropped its head count by 46.7 percent to 6,934 employees. D.R. Horton took similar steps, lowering its workforce by nearly 29 percent to 6,231. Overall, the country had 232,000 fewer construction jobs at the end of 2007 than it did at the end of 2006, according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University’s 2008 “State of the Nation’s Housing” report.
That trend has continued in 2008, as builders have continued to reduce manpower. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 290,000 construction jobs have been lost in the first seven months of 2008.
Nevertheless, ACS provides a revealing snapshot of how the construction industry compares with other sectors in the economy in its composition of workers and what they are being paid.
One thing it shows is how the income gap between male and female workers is narrower in construction than in several other fields. Men represented 90.6 percent of all construction workers last year, and the median income for full-time year-round male employees was $38,823, compared to $36,593 for full-time, year-round female construction workers.
In addition, while male construction workers felt short of the median income of $44,255 for all full-time year-round male workers in the U.S., women who work construction actually exceeded the $34,278 median income for all full-time year-round female workers.
In fact, construction ranked first last year among 20 industries for having the closest parity between male and female median incomes, and only behind community and social services and healthcare support among 22 occupations tracked.
Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t break out income for Hispanic construction workers, who made up roughly 27 percent of the construction industry workforce last year. The conventional wisdom in some quarters—that Hispanic construction workers who were in the U.S. illegally returned to their home countries when building activity dried up—also isn’t tested statistically by this data. The survey does note, though, that of the 22.5 million civilian workers who were foreign-born, 11.5 percent of them were working in the construction industry in 2007, versus 11.6 percent in 2006.
The survey also breaks down construction workers by occupation, with the largest group being 1.76 million “laborers.” This group was followed by metal workers at 1.72 million; carpenters, which numbered 1.58 million; supervisors, at 1.03 million; electricians at 812,000; painters and paper hangers at 655,000; and plumbers/pipe layers and steam fitters, at 601,000.
The survey finds that 8.4 percent of construction workers were self-employed in incorporated businesses in 2007, versus 8.1 percent the previous year. Another 16.2 percent were self employed in non-incorporated business, which was about the same as in 2006.
John Caulfield is a senior editor at BUILDER magazine.