Skills crunch warning as US construction employment hits record high

16 May 2014

US construction employment is at its highest level since the financial meltdown of 2008-09, leading to urgent warning of a skills crunch.

American contractors added 32,000 workers to their payrolls in last month, bringing the total employed to 6 million, the highest level since June 2009, says the Associated General Contractors of America (AGCA).

It’s great news but it means the industry is in danger of running short of essential skills unless training programmes are dusted off and expanded, the AGCA warned.

"It is heartening that all categories of construction employers added workers, not only in April but over the past 12 months," said Ken Simonson, the association’s chief economist. "Moreover, contractors have been adding to workers’ hours as well as hiring more employees," he said.

Construction employment totaled 6,000,000 in April, a gain of 189,000 or 3.3% from a year earlier.

Residential building and specialty trade contractors added a combined total of 13,100 workers in April and 107,900 (5%) over 12 months.

New home construction in Lake Forest, California. Rising real-estate values have developers upbeat about the industry’s prospects (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

It would be tragic if the construction industry can’t fill good-paying jobs because of a lack of trained recruits– Stephen Sandherr, AGCA

"There is a limit to how much overtime workers can put in, and companies will be seeking to expand employment even faster if the volume of projects continues to grow," Simonson added.

"But the huge drop in the number of unemployed former construction workers may make it harder to keep adding employees."

The unemployment rate for workers actively looking for jobs and last employed in construction declined from 13.2% a year earlier to 9.4% last month.

AGCA officials said that a sharp drop in the number of secondary-level construction training programs over the past several years has contributed to a decline in new entrants to the industry to replace retiring workers.

They urged federal, state and local officials to adopt measures to help schools, construction firms and local trade associations to start and expand training programs for future construction workers.

"If elected and appointed officials don’t act soon to improve the quantity and quality of training opportunities for future workers, many construction employers will struggle to find the workers they need," said Stephen E. Sandherr, the association’s chief executive officer.

"It would be tragic if the construction industry can’t fill good-paying jobs because of a lack of trained recruits."

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