The construction industry continued to contract last month, eliminating 126,000 jobs across residential, commercial, and heavy construction sectors, according to figures released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The only industry to lose more jobs in March was manufacturing, which shed 161,000 positions overall in areas such as fabricated metal products, machinery, and transportation equipment. Overall, the economy lost 663,000 jobs last month, slightly fewer than expected, but still bringing the country’s unemployment rate to a painful 8.5%.

“For the second month in a row, the headline employment decline didn’t meet the worst fears, but this is still a very weak report,” said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, who added that the economy has now lost 5.1 million jobs since the recent boom’s employment peak in December 2007.

Many of those now-eliminated jobs were in construction, of course, where employment has dropped more than 20 percent, or 1.3 million positions, since January 2007. Even worse, “nearly half of that decline occurred in the last five months,” according to the BLS release. 

March proved to be a particularly difficult month for builders and their counterparts. “In March, all five sub-sectors of the construction industry reported an acceleration in job losses relative to February, only the third time that has occurred over the last two years,” noted housing analyst Ivy Zelman of Zelman & Associates.

Within residential building, for example, approximately 18,000 jobs disappeared in March compared to the previous month, a 2.4% decline. Residential specialty trade contractors saw 40,700 positions evaporate, a reduction of 2.3% on a monthly basis.

But the true picture is likely even worse, given the composition of the home building workforce. “Since the peak, jobs related to residential building construction have fallen 29% and residential contractor employment has declined 28%, which would likely exclude undocumented workers that were as much as 20% to 30% of the industry’s labor force,” Zelman observed.

Alison Rice is senior editor, online, at BUILDER magazine.