2.8 Million Construction Jobs Are Missing

In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal Timothy Aeppel wrote an interesting article noting that manufacturing employment has recovered only 22% of the nearly 2.3 million jobs lost during the 2008-2009 recession.  While this is true the U.S. economy and labor market can flourish despite declining manufacturing employment.  In fact, declining manufacturing employment has been the norm in the U.S. for decades.  Manufacturing employment peaked at 19.5 million jobs in 1979.  Since then the manufacturing sector has lost 7.5 million jobs as 53 million jobs were created outside the manufacturing sector.

The decline in construction employment over the past five and a half years, however, is troubling and atypical of recent economic recoveries.  Normally investment in residential housing by households and structures by businesses increases rapidly in recoveries as these investments were deferred and delayed during the recession.  A comparison of the pattern of construction employment in this recession and recovery to comparable periods during and after the 1981 and 2001 recessions reveals some clear patterns:

  • Construction employment declined more than three times as much (26%) during the 2008-2009 recession as it did during the 1981 recession and more than 11 times as much as during the 2001 recession.
  • Construction employment is about 1.7 million (22%) below its pre-recession peak five and one half years after the recession began.
  • Five and one half years after the beginning of the 1981 and 2001 recessions construction employment had increased to about 15% above its pre-recession peak.

The following chart compares construction employment across the 1981, 2001 and 2008-2009 recessions normalizing employment to be 100 at the start of each recession.  The chart tracks construction employment in each recession/recovery for the subsequent five and one half years.

Construction1

The magnitude of the decline in construction employment during the 2008-2009 recession was unprecedented.  The absence of a recovery in construction in employment during the subsequent recovery is also unprecedented.  Had construction employment rebounded over the past few years as it had in previous recoveries, there would be 8.6 million workers in the construction sector instead of the current total of 5.8 million construction employees.  The net difference represents a shortfall of 2.8 million jobs in the construction sector.  Construction employment remains well below the levels of six years ago because businesses are investing less in structures than they did in previous recoveries and the residential housing market has not recovered as strongly as it has in other recoveries.

The shortfall of 2.8 million construction jobs is equivalent to the difference between the current unemployment rate of 7.4% and a 5.6% rate.  Of course, if the economy were strong enough to generate an additional 2.8 million construction jobs there would also be more robust growth in income and employment in other sectors of the economy lowering the unemployment rate even further.

The sharp decline in employment in the construction sector since 2008 and the fact that only 8% of construction jobs have been regained during this economic recovery is extremely troubling.  Construction differs from manufacturing because jobs can’t easily be outsourced to foreign countries.  While manufacturing’s share of total employment has declined steadily for decades, construction’s share of total employment grew steadily for three decades from 1978 to 2008 until the sharp decline over the past five and one half years.  The following chart illustrates the sharp drop in construction employment since 2008.

Construction2

In my view the continued weakness in the construction sector underscores a failed opportunity for those who advocate public investment in infrastructure.  The past five and one half years have seen an unprecedented slowdown in construction activity and employment.  Over two million construction workers lost their jobs in the deep recession and have remained displaced through a tepid recovery.  At the same time we have not chosen to re-build and repair our roads, bridges and infrastructure while there is an excess supply of construction labor and interest rates are low.  Government expenditures have been diverted from infrastructure to other programs such as a record extension of unemployment insurance benefits (over one billion weeks worth of UI benefits have been paid since 2008).

More importantly, the fact that the recession officially ended four years ago yet construction employment remains in a slump is a clear indication of the weakness of this economic recovery.  As the recovery officially enters its fifth year households are still unwilling or unable to purchase new houses and businesses lack the confidence and demand for their products to invest in offices, factories, warehouses and other facilities.  Until the construction sector rebounds because households and businesses are willing and able to invest in structures this recovery will continue to disappoint.

What Happened in Vegas? Its Not Better Off Than Four Years Ago

The question “are you better off than four years ago?”, first asked by Ronald Reagan in his campaign against Jimmy Carter in 1980, has a different answer for households in different parts of the country, and for workers who differ with respect to their occupation, age, education, race, gender and work experience.  The average answer to this question belies substantial inequality in changes in economic fortunes over the past four years.  There have been economic success stories even during the depths of the deepest recession since the Great Depression.  Some small businesses and start-ups have flourished.  The stock market and corporate profits have rebounded well in the past four years.  Many individuals have found work, moved from part-time to full-time work, received a promotion, or a substantial increase in their rate of pay.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is unlikely to be a group of workers more adversely affected by the recession and weak recovery than construction workers in areas where the real estate bubble burst.  Consider building construction workers in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Four years ago there were 17,500 workers employed in building construction.  Today there are only 5,100 meaning that employment has fallen by 71% over four years.

The Case-Shiller price index for residential housing in Las Vegas has fallen by 41% over the past four years.  This means that many of the unemployed and underemployed construction workers are underwater in their homes.  Moreover, given the glut of housing, the employment prospects for construction workers in Las Vegas is likely to remain weak for years to come.

What happened in Vegas, unfortunately, isn’t confined to Vegas.  There are a number of other cities and areas, from Riverside County, California to south Florida, that are casualties of the crash in real estate markets.  Many residents of these areas lost equity in their homes.  Others lost their jobs and have been underemployed for years.  Many small businesses, especially those dependent on real estate and construction, have failed.  So whenever pundits and journalists attempt to determine whether the typical American is better off than they were four years ago, remember that there are 300 million different answers to that question.  In some parts of the country the answer is clearly no, for far too many Americans.

Durable Goods Manufacturers Struggle to Find Qualified Applicants

The typical job vacancy in durable goods manufacturing remains unfilled longer, on average, than at any time in the past decade.  This suggests that durable goods manufacturers struggle to find qualified applicants for their job openings as the economy slowly recovers from the deep recession of 2008 and 2009.  In contrast the average construction job vacancy remains unfilled half as long as it did during the construction boom because there are many qualified jobless workers for each job opening.  Construction employment fell by almost 30% between 2007 and 2010, and has not grown since January 2010.

The BLS JOLTS data report job openings at the end of each month and the number of persons hired per month, by major sector of the economy.  For example, there have been an average of 194,000 job openings in durable goods manufacturing at the end of each month, and 157,000 workers hired per month over the past three months.  This implies that the average job vacancy remains unfilled for about 38 days.  In contrast, at the depth of the recession in the fall of 2009 the average durable goods job vacancy remained unfilled for less than two weeks.  The following figure shows the average number of days a job vacancy remained unfilled over the past decade in three sectors impacted by the recession: construction, financial services and durable goods manufacturing.

 

The average job vacancy in financial services now remains unfilled for about 40 days compared to 25 days in the fall of 2009.  The financial services labor market had the least slack in the summer of 2006, when the typical job vacancy remained unfilled for about 7 weeks.

It was most difficult to hire a construction worker in the summer of 2007 when the average job vacancy remained unfilled for about 15 days.  In contrast, in the early fall of 2009, the average construction job opening remained unfilled for less than 5 days.

The average job vacancy in financial services now remains unfilled for about 40 days compared to 25 days in the fall of 2009.  The financial services labor market had the least slack in the summer of 2006, when the typical job vacancy remained unfilled for about 7 weeks.

It was most difficult to hire a construction worker in the summer of 2007 when the average job vacancy remained unfilled for about 15 days.  In contrast, in the early fall of 2009, the average construction job opening remained unfilled for less than 5 days.

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