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Job openings drop, but demand persists

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Dive Brief:

  • Open construction jobs dropped to 449,000 unfilled positions in December, a 21,000-worker, or 0.2%, decline from the month prior, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
  • The report measures jobs for which employers are actively seeking workers. At the end of last month, 5.3% of all construction jobs were unfilled. December ended with 39,000 fewer open positions compared to the same month in 2022.
  • “The construction industry averaged 445,000 job openings per month in the fourth quarter of 2023,” wrote Associated Builders and Contractors Chief Economist Anirban Basu in a release about the report. “That’s the highest quarterly level on record and a strong indication that the labor shortages that have long plagued the construction industry remain firmly in place.”

Dive Insight:

Last month, 150,000 construction workers quit and 169,000 were laid off, both slight decreases from the previous month. Basu pointed to those numbers as a potential beacon of hope.

“While contractors are still laying off workers at a historically low rate, the rate at which construction workers are quitting has fallen below 2019 levels,” he wrote. “This is likely a reflection of falling demand for labor in industries that compete with construction for talent, including trade, transportation and utilities, which has seen a 25% decline in job openings over the past year.” 

Nonetheless, contractors, as ever, face an uphill battle in staffing projects.

The need remains high

In 2024, construction will need to attract about half a million workers on top of the normal pace of hiring, according to an ABC report released Wednesday. ABC uses a model that anticipates the need for 3,550 new construction jobs per $1 billion in new spending. That demand is also added to above-average job openings.

The industry’s unemployment rate has remained historically low — indicating that the vast majority of construction workers already have jobs — while job openings remain high and contractors’ rate of layoffs has slowed significantly.

“Over the past two years, cyclical influences have helped diminish the gap between construction worker supply and demand,” said Basu. “Though nonresidential construction spending has continued to surge, homebuilding segments have felt the impact of higher borrowing costs more intensely. With interest rates set to decline in 2024 and 2025, the expectation is that construction worker shortfalls will remain elevated.”

And paying for labor will only grow more costly, a new study has found.

Construction wages rose 20% on average from 2021 to 2023, according to a report from data-solutions provider Gordian. Those wages will likely continue to climb, Gordian said, due to the implementation of project labor agreements in the booming infrastructure sector, and the rise of more megaprojects.

At the same time, baby boomers left the workforce in large swaths during the COVID-19 shutdown in early 2020, and many haven’t returned — and are not likely to, Gordian reported.

Construction faces an exodus of experience as a result.

“More than 1 in 5 construction workers are 55 or older, meaning that retirement will continue to contract the industry’s workforce,” Basu said. “These are the most experienced workers, and their departures are especially concerning.” 

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