For the average job seeker it looks like a tough market. The economy has lost 236,000 jobs since the beginning of the year. The unemployment rate in June unexpectedly hit 6.4 percent, a nine-year high. And the number of "discouraged workers"--those who want jobs but have given up the search--jumped to 478,000 in June, a 40 percent increase from last June.
In construction it's a different story. Construction payrolls have increased for four months in a row, a rare spot of optimism. While the construction industry (commercial and residential) added 16,000 jobs in June, for a total of 6.801 million workers, manufacturing, retailers, and professional and business services all lost jobs. Payrolls did increase in the education and health services industries, as well as in leisure and hospitality.
The rise in construction jobs is not merely a summertime surge. According to the government's seasonally adjusted numbers, the construction industry has added 101,000 jobs since February. "Construction employment is usually more cyclical, but that hasn't been true in the last cycle," says NAHB economist Michael Carliner, who attributes the shift to the continued strong housing market.
The majority of the growth has come not from builders themselves, but from their subs--the specialty trade contractors who install the drywall, do the carpentry, lay the tile, and more. This group added 14,500 jobs in June 2003 alone, which represents the lion's share of the 16,000 new construction jobs added that month.
There may be more. According to Carliner, the number of construction workers is often undercounted because the industry also includes self-employed workers (1.5 million in 2001), who are not part of the Bureau of Labor Statistics' payroll figures, which tend to be weighted toward large companies.
But small companies are where the jobs are generally created first. "Big businesses tend to move later than small businesses," says David Berson, chief economist for Fannie Mae.
Those small companies do appear to be moving. Twelve percent of small business owners say they've added an average of three employees during the past three months, according to the National Federation of Independent Business. The group's Index of Small Business Optimism also hit in June the highest level (101.9) since November 2002. Finally, while the unemployment rate is higher than a year ago, there are actually 1.4 million more people with jobs than a year ago, Berson says, which also suggests small businesses are hiring.