Construction employment decreased by 31,000 jobs in February as extreme winter weather gripped much of the nation. However, continuing year-over-year employment and wage increases that exceed those in other industries suggest there has been no letup in demand for projects, according to an analysis of new government data by the Associated General Contractors of America.
"The decline in construction employment in February follows an oversized increase in January of 53,000 employees," said Ken Simonson, the association's chief economist. "That suggests contractors may have been able to bring workers on board sooner than normal and had less need to hire in February than usual, even if lousy weather conditions hadn't stalled some projects.
"A bigger concern for the industry is the lack of experienced workers," Simonson continued. "There were fewer unemployed construction workers last month than any prior February in the 20-year history of this series, down 144,000 from a year earlier. Contractors are scrambling to find workers, despite offering pay that is well above the private sector as a whole."
Construction employment totaled 7,422,000 in February, an increase of 223,000, or 3.1 percent, since February 2018. That growth rate was nearly double the 1.7 percent gain in total nonfarm payroll employment, the economist pointed out. Average hourly earnings in construction—a measure of all wages and salaries—increased 3.1 percent over the year to $30.45. That figure was more than 10 percent higher than the private-sector average of $27.66.
In a survey the association released in January, more contractors reported they expect the dollar volume of projects available to bid on to expand than to shrink in 2019 in each of 13 project categories. In addition, 79 percent of construction firms reported that they expect to add employees in 2019. However, nearly as many—78 percent—reported they were having trouble filling some positions and 68 percent said they expected that hiring would remain difficult or become harder.
Association officials said that, despite the headline number, all indications are that demand for construction remains strong and that firms continue searching for qualified candidates to hire. They called on federal officials to double investments in career and technical education programs to expose more high school students to construction opportunities.
"Members in most parts of the country continue to worry more about finding enough workers and not about finding enough work." said Stephen E. Sandherr, the association's chief executive officer. "The more federal officials can do to let students know about the many high-paying jobs available in construction, the more people will begin rewarding careers in the industry."