Total construction spending increased by 0.4 percent in September, yet a record-high number of job openings suggests the industry would be completing even more projects if it could hire enough workers, according to an analysis of federal spending data the Associated General Contractors of America released Nov. 1. Association officials cautioned that efforts in Congress to limit the construction industry’s access to potential workers could undermine future infrastructure and economic development projects.
“It is encouraging that most categories of construction, including homebuilding, are growing,” said Ken Simonson, the association’s chief economist. “But the numbers would be even more impressive if the industry didn’t have so many unfilled job openings.”
Construction spending, not adjusted for inflation, totaled $1.997 trillion at a seasonally adjusted annual rate in September. That figure is 0.4 percent above the August rate, which was revised up from the initial estimate. Spending on private residential construction rose by 0.6 percent, with a 1.3 percent increase in single-family spending and a dip of 0.1 percent in multifamily projects. Spending on private nonresidential construction edged up 0.1 percent in September, while public construction investment rose 0.4 percent.
The largest nonresidential segments showed mixed changes from August to September. Spending on manufacturing plants declined 0.4 percent. Spending on commercial construction — comprising warehouse, retail and farm construction — rose by 0.7 percent. Highway and street spending slipped 0.1 percent. Investment in power, oil and gas projects climbed 0.9 percent. Education spending jumped 1.8 percent.
A separate government report showed job openings climbed to 438,000 on September 30, the highest September figure in the 23-year history of the series. Meanwhile, the industry was able to hire only 294,000 employees in the entire month, an 18 percent decline from September 2022. Simonson said the huge number of openings was a sign the drop in hiring is due to a dearth of applicants, not projects.
Association officials warned that efforts in Congress to exclude the construction industry from the H-2B visa program will make it even harder for firms to find enough workers to keep pace with demand. They noted that the federal government already underinvests in career and technical education programs that focus on construction, and excluding the industry from accessing the pool of workers available through the visa program would only make it harder for firms to build vital infrastructure and economic development projects.
“The construction industry is already up against a federal government that spends most of its education money urging students to pursue other career fields,” said Stephen E. Sandherr, the association’s chief executive officer. “Excluding construction from the visa program is like having a federal government that wants to build things but doesn’t seem interested in having anybody to build them.”