Construction jobs building, but could get hammered

At Skanska USA in New Castle, DE, pre-fab modular construction, much of which will be used to expand Dupont Children's Hospital, on Feb. 8, 2013. Here, carpenter Mark Redding cuts material for the ceilings of the pods. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)

The construction trades have been hammered throughout the recession, but Friday's U.S. Labor Department report showed great progress for the beleaguered sector. Hiring was up by 48,000 jobs from January to February. This is the ninth month of steady job growth.

You may wonder how construction hiring can be up in the winter: The analysts at the U.S. Labor Department produce two sets of numbers, both from a survey of employers. One set of statistics is evened out, factoring in weather and traditional employment patterns. Those statistics are known as "seasonally adjusted." The straight results from the survey are known as "not seasonally adjusted."  But even those numbers are up by 28,000, showing the health of the sector.

Using the seasonally adjusted figures (as most commentators do), most of the growth in construction is happening at the specialty trade contractor level doing work in homes. That alone is responsible for 17,100 jobs, the biggest single chunk of the 48,000 jobs. Up from 5.4 million a year ago, some 5,784,000 were employed in construction in February.  But that's two million fewer that worked in construction in 2006, before the start of the recession.

Even so, one in six workers in the construction trades are unemployed, says Stephen E. Sandherr, the chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors of America, a trade group, adding that political chaos in Washington could threaten the sector's gains.

“While the new employment figures are encouraging, the construction industry’s recovery remains fragile,” Sandherr said in a statement. “Putting billions of dollars worth of construction projects on hold because Washington officials can’t set a budget threatens to undermine the sector’s recovery just as it is starting to heat up.”