Doing the Math

Departments - Editor's Focus

September 19, 2013
Kristin Smith

Kristin Smith


When people ask me why I became a writer, I like to joke that it is because I really dislike math. But of course when the industry you write about is so tied to the economy, commodities prices and construction activity, numbers cannot be avoided. While math may not be my favorite subject, I frequently make calculations and analyze data. Drawing conclusions from recent unemployment and construction spending data, however, could stump even the most brilliant mathematician.

In July, construction unemployment reached a five-year low of 9.1 percent. I am sure that is welcome news for the demolition contractors who are clearing the way for new construction and for C&D facilities that are recycling the materials these jobs are producing.

While the unemployment rate is a 3 percent improvement over July 2012, Chief Economist for the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) Ken Simonson offers a bit of caution, “While the industry has added workers in the past year, employment growth has been negligible recently.”

The job growth that has occurred recently only has been on the residential side. Residential building and specialty trade contractors added 6,300 employees in July. For the year, the numbers show further improvement, up by 92,100 workers, or a 4.5 percent increase. Nonresidential building, specialty trade and heavy and civil engineering construction firms, on the other hand, lost 11,500 workers in June. Compared with last year, though, that is an improvement of 2.1 percent, or 74,300 workers. Architectural and engineering services employment rose by 2.3 percent over the year, suggesting further modest gains in construction ahead, the AGC reports.

Meanwhile, U.S. Census Bureau data show a decline in construction spending from nonresidential and public construction in June. During the same month, residential construction, while up 18 percent over last year, was flat. With June being the height of construction season, that is somewhat of a surprising statistic.

“New single-family and multifamily construction both had rare slowdowns in June, while private nonresidential construction remained stuck in neutral as it has all year, and the long slump in public construction worsened,” Simonson remarks. “For the rest of 2013, private construction appears likely to grow again, but public spending is showing no signs of a recovery.”

The ACG is urging lawmakers in Washington to make infrastructure investment a top priority for the fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

When you add it all up, even someone who is a math whiz may not have all the answers. As for me, I will conclude that while there are some positive signs in the numbers, we still have a long way to go.