Are the Rumors of a Construction Worker Shortage True?

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- There are reports of a shortage of construction workers. According to the latest survey from Associated General Contractors of America, a trade and lobbying group, some 83% of construction firms are having trouble finding qualified workers. There are other anecdotal reports from around the country. 

These reports, however, aren't indicative of the true landscape. Economic data suggest there are tons of construction workers around, just waiting for home-building to pick up.

During the housing bubble, construction employment peaked in the U.S. in the third quarter of 2006 at 7.7 million, or 5.7% of total employment. As the bubble burst, construction employment fell to as low as 5.5 million. The recovery has been slow, and construction is only 900,000 above its trough. (Read more: U.S. housing outlook.)

What happened to all those construction workers who lost their jobs in the last recession? Many of them could be a part of the large number of people who have quit looking for work; or they could have found other relatively low-skilled jobs. Some are likely just still unemployed. Wherever they are, a detailed look at the data provides little reason to believe that a shortage of construction workers is a big problem in the U.S. right now.

A shortage of construction workers is often blamed for the lackluster recovery in U.S. residential investment but this is a stretch and not the primary reason home-building hasn't contributed more to the recovery.

A significant number of construction workers are available. For perspective, only around half of the construction jobs that disappeared when the housing bubble burst have been recovered. This by itself casts doubt about a worker shortage.

 

There could still be a tight construction worker market if most of those who lost their jobs have moved on to other permanent careers, but this seems unlikely. For example, they may have taken jobs in the booming energy sector, which provides relatively highly compensated manual labor positions that construction workers could fill. However, while the energy sector has been booming, it remains a relatively small part of the overall economy. Since the peak of the housing bubble, the industry has added only 220,000 jobs , and therefore can account for at most only a quarter of the 900,000 lost construction jobs. (Read more: The construction worker shortage.)

In addition, the unemployment rate among experienced construction workers stood at 7.8% as of the fourth quarter of 2014, compared with a low of 6.1% in 2006. This also suggests that construction workers who have lost their jobs have not all moved on to different careers.

A higher than normal number of job openings, given the unemployment rate, would be a sign of worker shortage. This would suggest that employers are having a harder time finding workers than labor slack would suggest they should be. However, a comparison of the historical values of construction job openings and construction unemployment, which is known as the Beveridge curve, suggests that current values are normal and not evidence of a shortage. (Read more: Breakdown of the latest job openings numbers.)

It is possible that shortages exist for specialized construction skills. To check, employment statistics are available for many specific construction categories such as roofing contractors and new single-family general contractors. Looking at 43 detailed construction industry sub-sectors, only five have current employment above that in the third quarter of 2006. Three of these are related to the energy industry, and none likely to affect residential construction.

Another place to look for evidence of a shortage is wages. Average hourly earnings for the construction industry remain tame, and so does the employment cost index, which controls for changes in workforce composition.

Of the 39 sub-sectors where average hourly earnings data are available, only seven have grown at 5% or more over the last year, while 27 of them have advanced less than 3%. Again, large wage gains are concentrated in heavy and energy-related construction. The only sub-sectors with strong wage gains that could affect residential are: steel and precast concrete contractors (5.8%), drywall and insulation contractors (5%), tile and terrazzo contractors (5.5%), and other building finishing contractors (6.2%). Still, employment in these remain below that in 2006. The only one even close is other building finish contractors, which is still 9% short of a high point. (Read More: Employment cost index deep dive.)

Drywall and insulation contractors are one sub-sector where anecdotal reports of shortages are commonly found. However, the relatively fast wage growth here isn't suggestive of a shortage. Even with this recent uptick, wages here are just less than $27 an hour compared with $23 in 2006, which is an average growth of 1.8% over those nine years. This isn't likely consistent with a shortage. In addition, there are 220,000 workers employed in drywall and insulation, compared with 375,000 in 2006.

Finally, the shortage may be occurring in some states. However, in all but four states, construction employment is below the previous peak. The four exceptions are North Dakota, Louisiana, Iowa and Oklahoma. This is tied to energy.

Even some states with booming housing markets are significantly short of prior peaks. Colorado, for example, is seeing annual single-family house price growth of nearly 9%, and yet construction employment in the state remains 14% below the previous peak. Texas, with its much heralded housing boom, is just now approaching previous construction employment peaks. However, this likely exaggerates the tightness of the labor market; since the population has grown 15% since 2006, you would expect significantly more construction workers will be available than during the previous peak.

Overall, it is difficult to rule out isolated construction labor shortages, in particular shortages in specific sub-sectors localized in specific geographic areas. However, whatever shortages are occurring, they are not big enough to be a significant drag on the wider U.S. housing market.

If there is no shortage, then why are there anecdotes of one? It may be that isolated shortages are occurring and these complaints receive outsize media attention compared with the rest of the country, where construction labor slack remains. Anecdotal reports suggest that larger firms are placing construction workers under contracts. If so, the complaints of a shortage may be coming from smaller firms that are having a harder time hiring because of more workers being tied up in contracts at larger firms. In addition, the number of construction establishments has declined 15% from the peak in 2007, which may reflect a higher concentration of large firms that could magnify the problem from the perspective of smaller firms.

Whether it is isolated shortages, non-representative anecdotes, or the problems of smaller construction companies, none of these suggests a shortage problem that is large enough to be a concern at the national level. (Read more: U.S. housing outlook.)

Read Adam on Moody's Analytics Dismal Scientist.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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