Construction-industry joblessness at 13-year high

WASHINGTON - Still reeling from the subprime mortgage mess and the economic downturn it spawned, the troubled construction industry got another jolt of bad news recently when the production of single-family homes hit its lowest annual rate since 1991.

Homebuilders, stung by a glut of unsold units, slowed production nearly 3 percent in July and, in doing so, helped send 22,000 more construction workers to the unemployment line.

The homebuilding industry is in its worst slump since the Great Depression and many commercial projects have been canceled or postponed until the economy rebounds.

This double whammy has made it a cruel summer for construction workers.

The industry's July unemployment rate of 8 percent is the highest in 13 years. Across the nation, some 783,000 jobless laborers, carpenters, plumbers, pipefitters and other tradesmen are looking for work.

Since its September 2006 employment peak, the construction sector has lost 557,000 positions. Nearly three-quarters of those lost jobs occurred after October 2007, when the economy officially began to tank.

The slowdown in new housing construction is likely to continue into early 2009, said Robert Denk, an economist at the National Association of Homebuilders.

Single-family home production in the second quarter of 2008 was at just 39 percent of the record production level of the first quarter of 2006. That's the equivalent of 638,000 new homes being built in 2008, Denk said.

"The slowdown in housing starts has been very painful for the industry, but it is the necessary medicine to work down the inventory of unsold homes," Denk said. "We need for sales to outpace production so we can work down these inventories. That's what has to happen before we can get this thing back on track." *