Number of Open Construction Jobs Remains Elevated

Recent government employment data suggest a pickup in construction sector job openings over the last half-year. While the increase in unfilled positions is consistent with the uptick in construction sector activity, particularly for home building, the data reflect only modest increases in total employment thus far.

For the construction sector, Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicate that gross hiring for the construction sector totaled 338,000 in March 2013.

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More importantly, the number of open, unfilled positions in the construction industry remained near post-Great Recession highs. The number of unfilled positions in the sector stood at 101,000 in March, marking three consecutive months for which the total number of open positions was greater than 100,000. This is the first time this has occurred since 2008. Successfully filling open positions with qualified workers is a top concern for home builders in 2013.

The March job openings rate (open positions measured as a percentage of current employment) for construction was 1.7%. Measured as a three-month moving average, the openings rate (the blue line above) has shown noticeable strength for the last seven months. Combined with a declining sector layoff rate (nonseasonally adjusted), charted as a 12-month moving average in the graph above, these factors suggest good news for construction hiring in the months ahead.

Monthly employment data for April 2013 (the employment count data from the BLS establishment survey are published one month ahead of the JOLTS data) indicate that total employment in home building stands at 2.132 million, broken down as 586,000 builders and 1.545 million residential specialty trade contractors.

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According to the BLS data, over the last 12 months, the home building sector has added only 84,000 jobs. Since the point of peak decline of home building employment, when total job losses for the industry stood at 1.466 million, 148,000 positions have been added to the residential construction sector.

While employment growth for the sector is not expected to occur at rates seen for the growth in building, the current slight level of improvement for total employment is a puzzle. This small amount of job creation could be due to increased hours for existing workers, but if true, this is not a sustainable situation. Expected increases in building should lead to further growth in residential construction employment over the course of the year. Thus far in 2013, home building employment is averaging monthly growth of about 14,000.

For the economy as a whole, the March JOLTS data indicate that the hiring rate was relatively unchanged at 3.2% of total employment. The hiring rate has been in the 3.1% to 3.4% range since January 2011. The job openings rate  remained elevated, at 2.8% in March, the highest since June 2012.

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