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Advanced Building Estimation 5-16-18

This is a partial selection of slides I will be presenting on May 16 in Dallas at Hanson Wade’s Advanced Building Estimation Conference. I’m covering the topics Inflation/Escalation and Forecasting particularly as it relates to staffing planning.


EdZarenski ABE Presentation on Twitter 5-18-18

EdZ ABE slides ALL PDF 5-18




Construction Spending is Back


We’ve all seen headlines like, “Construction Spending is back to previous level”, or “Construction Spending back to a new high.” Here’s how even true information can be deceiving.

It’s true, construction spending in current $ reached a new high in 2017 at $1,236 billion. The previous high in current $ was $1,161 in 2006. Spending surpassed that in 2014 and has been increasing since. But that is in current $, which includes inflation.

Let’s say a store will sell a bushel of apples, cost $100 in 2014, $110 in 2015, $120 in 2016 and $130 in 2017. If we look at the current $ spent on apples each year, it looks like business is booming, up 30% in 3 years. But the reality is, with the exception of inflation, the apple business has not changed at all. Only one bushel of apples sold every year. The year to year change in un-adjusted current $ is the increase in cost, not the increase in volume.

Comparing current $ spending to previous year spending does not give any indication if business is increasing. The inflation factor is missing. If spending is increasing at 4%/year in a time when inflation is 6%/year, real volume is declining by 2%.

Total construction spending in constant $ (inflation adjusted $) reached $1,236 billion in 2017. After adjusting all previous spending to equivalent 2017$, we can see that all years from 1997 through 2008 had higher volume than 2017.  In 2000-2001 volume was just over $1,400 billion and in 2005 volume reached a peak at $1,454 billion. While spending in current $ is 7% higher than the previous high spending, volume is still 15% lower than the previous high volume.

Spend 1970-2020 Total 3-9-18

Nonresidential buildings construction spending in constant $ (inflation adjusted $) reached $419 billion in 2017. Previous spending adjusted to equivalent 2017$ shows that all years from 1995 through 2010 had higher volume than 2017. Volume reached a peak $536 billion in 2000 and went over $500 billion again in 2008. Spending in current $ is almost back to the peak of $438 billion in 2008, but volume is lower than almost all years from 1985 to 2010 and is still 22% lower than the 2000 high volume.

Spend 1970-2020 Nonres Bldgs 3-9-18

Non-building Infrastructure construction spending in constant $ reached $294 billion in 2017. Recent highs were posted in 2015 and 2016 at $305 billion and $304 billion and 2018 is expected to reach $319 billion. Previous spending adjusted to equivalent 2017$ shows that 2008 and 2009 were both just slightly higher than $300 billion. Volume reached a peak $313 billion in 2016. Spending in current $ hit new highs in 2015 and 2016. This is the only sector that has current $ and constant $ at or near all-time highs.

Spend 1970-2020 NonBldg Infra 3-9-18

Residential buildings construction spending in constant $ reached $523 billion in 2017. Previous spending adjusted to equivalent 2017$ shows that all years from 1996 through 2007 had higher volume than 2017. Volume reached a peak $748 billion in 2005. Only the years 2004-2006 had higher spending in current $. The 2005 current $ peak of $630 billion is still 17% higher than 2017, but 2017 volume is still 30% lower than peak volume.

Spend 1970-2020 Residential 3-9-18

This has several implications besides misleading headlines that claim construction is at a new high. Just look at the period 1996-2007 on the residential plot. Spending in current $ increased 130% from $270 billion to $620 billion. But this was during a period that recorded some of the highest residential construction inflation on record. Inflation was 90%. Follow the guidelines up to constant$ and see that real volume increased only 40% from $530 billion to $750 billion.

If you are hiring to meet your needs and you see that spending (revenue) has increased by 130%, do you hire to meet revenue? No. Hiring requires a knowledge of volume growth. Residential jobs during this time frame increased by 55%, more than real volume growth, but no where near the 130% spending growth.

The above plots were developed using current and historical Census construction spending and inflation indices were developed from construction industry resources, documentation which can be found here on this blog.

See also

Residential Construction Jobs Shortages 2-3-18

Constant Dollar Construction Growth 11-2-17

Inflation in Construction 2018 – What Should You Carry? 2-15-18



Inflation in Construction 2018 – What Should You Carry?

2-15-18, updated 3-10-18, 6-28-18

When construction is very actively growing, total construction costs typically increase more rapidly than the net cost of labor and materials. In active markets overhead and profit margins increase in response to increased demand. These costs are captured only in Selling Price, or final cost indices.

General construction cost indices and Input price indices that don’t track whole building final cost do not capture the full cost of inflation on construction projects.

To properly adjust the cost of construction over time you must use actual final cost indices, otherwise known as selling price indices.

ENRBCI and ENRCCI are prefect examples of commonly used indices that DO NOT represent whole building costs, yet are widely used to adjust project costs. An estimator can get into trouble adjusting project costs if not using appropriate indices.

CPI, the Consumer Price Index, tracks changes in the prices paid by urban consumers for a representative basket of goods and services, including food, transportation, medical care, apparel, recreation, housing. This index in not related at all to construction and should never be used to adjust construction pricing. Historically, Construction Inflation is about double the CPI, but for the last 5 years construction inflation averages 3x the CPI.

Producer Price Index (PPI) Material Inputs costs to all construction (which exclude labor) are up +4.2% in 2017. More specific input costs for nonresidential structures in 2017 are up 4.3%. Infrastructure cost are up over 5% and single-family residential inputs are up 4.3%. But material inputs accounts for only a portion of the final cost of constructed buildings.

Labor input is currently experiencing cost increases. When there is a shortage of labor, contractors may pay a premium to keep their workers. Unemployment in construction is the lowest on record. The JOLTS ( Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey) is at or near all-time highs. A tight labor market will keep labor costs climbing at the fastest rate in years.


Click Here for Link to a 20-year Table of 25 Indices

Inflation can have a dramatic impact on the accuracy of a construction budget. Usually budgets are prepared from known current costs. If a budget is being developed for a project whose midpoint of construction costs is two years in the future, you must carry an appropriate inflation factor to represent the expected cost of the building at that time.

The level of construction activity has a direct influence on labor and material demand and margins and therefore on construction inflation. Nonresidential Buildings and Non-building Infrastructure backlog are both at all-time highs. 75% to 80% of all nonresidential spending within the year comes from starting backlog. In 2018 spending from nonresidential backlog will be up nearly 8%-10%. In the last three years nonresidential buildings spending from backlog is up more than 25%, non-building infrastructure up only 10%.

Most spending for residential comes from new starts. Residential new starts in Q1-2017 reached an 11 year high. For Q1-2018 starts are up another 4% over Q1-2017. Spending from new starts is up 100% in the last 6 years, 30% in the last 3 years.

Current indications are that 2019 backlog will be up 6%-8% across all sectors.

Taking into account the current (Jan 2018 12 mo) CPI of 2% and the most recent 5 years ratio of Construction Inflation to CPI, along with accelerated cost increases in labor and material inputs and the high level of activity in construction markets, I would consider the following forecasts for 2018 inflation as minimums with potential to see higher rates than forecast.

Residential construction saw a slowdown in inflation to only +3.5% in 2015. However, the average inflation for five years from 2013 to 2017 is 5.8%. It peaked at 8% in 2013. It climbed back over 5% for 2016 and reached 5.8% in 2017. Midyear 2018 indexes are between 5.0% and 6.5%. Anticipate residential construction inflation for 2018 at least 5% to 6%.

Nonresidential Buildings indices have averaged 4% to 4.5% over the last five years and all have reached over 5% in the last three years. Nonresidential buildings inflation totaled 18% in the last four years. My forecast shows nonresidential buildings spending in 2018 will reach the fastest rate of growth in three years, which historically has led to accelerated inflation.

Recent news of a steel tariff needs to be addressed as an added factor to inflation. In another article on this blog, (see steel cost increase), I calculated the 25% tariff on steel would cost nonresidential buildings 1%. Some Infrastructure could be much more, i.e., bridges 4-5%. Residential impact would be small. A 25% increase in mill steel could add 0.65% to final cost of building just for the structure. It adds 1.0% for all steel in a building. If your building is not a steel structure, steel still potentially adds 0.35%. 

Anticipate construction inflation for nonresidential buildings for 2018 and 2019, excluding steel impact, of 5% to 5.5%, rather than the long-term growth average of 4%. Adjust for steel impact.

Following Graph updated 6-28-18 – Several indices Q1 or Q2 2018 information has been updated. That revised the 2018 forecast up slightly. Reliable nonresidential selling price indexes have been over 4% since 2015. Currently some indexes are over 5% inflation in 2018. Expect a further update in August 2018.

Inflation Range 2000-2019 plot 6-28-18

Non-building infrastructure indices are so unique to the type of work that individual specific infrastructure indices must be used to adjust cost of work. The FHWA highway index increased 17% from 2010 to 2014, dropped 2% in 2015-2016, then increased 2% in 2017. Inflation for refineries and petrochemical facilities has dropped 5% in the last 4 years.

Input costs to infrastructure are down slightly from the post-recession highs, but most costs have increased in the last year. Input cost to Highways are up 4.7% and to the Power sector are up 5.8% in 2017. Work volume in Transportation and Pipeline projects is increasing rapidly in 2017 and 2018. Expect inputs in these markets to show large increases in 2018.

Infrastructure indices registered 2% to 4% gains in 2017. Anticipate a minimum of 3% to 4% inflation for 2018 with the potential to go higher in rapidly expanding markets. Tariff impact adds to this. Refer to Infrastructure Indices.

Watch for unexpected impacts from steel tariffs, potentially adding 5% to bridges. Also impacted, power industry, pipeline, towers, transportation. 

  • Long term construction cost inflation is normally about double consumer price inflation (CPI).
  • Since 1993 but taking out 2 worst years of recession (-8% to -10% total for 2009-2010), the 20-year average inflation is 4.2%.
  • Average long term (30 years) construction cost inflation is 3.5% even with any/all recession years included.
  • In times of rapid construction spending growth, construction inflation averages about 8%.
  • Nonresidential buildings inflation has average 3.7% since the recession bottom in 2011. It has averaged 4.2% for the last 4 years.
  • Residential buildings inflation reached a post recession high of 8.0% in 2013 but dropped to 3.4% in 2015. It has averaged 5.8% for the last 5 years.
  • Although inflation is affected by labor and material costs, a large part of the change in inflation is due to change in contractors/suppliers margins.
  • When construction volume increases rapidly, margins increase rapidly.
  • Construction inflation can be very different from one major sector to the other and can vary from one market to another. It can even vary considerably from one material to another.

BCI 1992-2019 2-12-18

The two links below point to comprehensive coverage of the topic inflation and are recommended reading.

Click Here for Link to a 20-year Table of 25 Indices

Click Here for  Cost Inflation Commentary – text on Current Inflation




US Historical Construction Cost Indices 1800s to 1957

Historical Cost Indices Dating Back to 1800s

See pages 379-386 for indices

See page 387 for start of Housing

Chapter on Housing Historical Data

U S Census Historical Construction Spending Annual totals 1964-2002  USE Table 1



Cautions When Using PPI Inputs to Construction!

The Producer Price Index (PPI) for material inputs to construction gives us an indication whether costs for material inputs are going up or down. The PPI tracks producers’ cost to produce the product and supply finished products to retailers or contractors. However, that is far from the total cost from the contractor.

A good example is steel. The producer price for steel from the mill might be $750/ton for long beams and columns. The only increases captured at the producer level might be the changes in cost for raw material, energy to manufacture and the producers labor and markup. But the structural steel contractor is then responsible for delivery to shop, detailing, shop fabrication, transport to construction site, load and unload, cranes and welding equipment needed to install, installation crews and finally overhead and profit accounting for at least eight more points of potential cost change. Finally the steel subcontractor must then assess the market conditions, whether tight or favorable to higher profits, to adjust the bid price or selling price. The final cost of steel installed could be $3000/ton.

The PPI for Construction Inputs IS NOT an indicator of construction inflation. It does not represent the selling price, nor does it give any indication of the trend, up or down, of selling price.

In 2009 PPI for inputs was flat but construction inflation, as measured by final cost of buildings, was down 8% to 10%. In 2010, the PPI for construction inputs was up 5.3% but the selling price was flat. Construction inflation, based on several decades of trends, is approximately double consumer inflation. However, from mid-2009 to late 2012, that long-term trend did not hold up. During that period, PPI ranged from 0% to +6.8%, but construction inflation/deflation ranged from -10% to +2.3%, lower than PPI for all four years, something which seldom occurs. Construction inflation/deflation was primarily influenced by depressed bid margins, which had been driven lower due to diminished work volume.

The following table shows the differences between the PPI Inputs from 2011 to 2017 and the actual inflation for the major construction sectors. This table shows clearly that PPI Inputs and Inflation not only can vary widely but also may not even move in the same direction.

AAA PPI vs Inflation 2011-2017

The PPI tables published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics do include several line items that represent Final Trades Cost or Whole Building Cost. Those PPI items don’t give us any details about the producer price or retail price of the materials used, but they do include all of the contractors costs incurred, including markups, on the final product delivered to the consumer, the building owner. I would note however that those line items in the PPI almost always show lower inflation than final Selling Price inflation indices developed separately from the PPI. Follow this link to table of inflation values which includes the PPI final cost for trades and buildings. 

Construction Managers responsible for working with the client to manage project cost, part of which includes preparing a full building cost estimate, should not rely on PPI values as an indication of inflation. Selling price inflation indices are more appropriate indices to use to adjust project costs.

It is always important to carry the proper value for cost inflation. Whether adjusting the cost of a recently built project to predict what it might cost to build a similar project in the near future, or answering a client question, “What will it cost if I delay my project start?”, the proper value for inflation (which differs by sector and differs every year) can make or break your estimate.

Contractors responsible for a particular building material, although the PPI Inputs will not track market conditions sale prices from producer to the contractor, can get some indication of whether material prices are rising or falling. Contractors should be aware of PPI trends to interpret the data throughout the year.


  • 60% of the time, the highest increase of the year in the PPI is in the first quarter.
  • 75% of the time, two-thirds of the annual increase occured in the first six months.
  • In 25 years, the highest increase for the year has never been in Q4.
  • 60% of the time, the lowest increase of the year in the PPI is in Q4.
  • 50% of the time, Q4 is negative, yet in 25 years the PPI was negative only four times.

So when you see monthly news reports from the industry exclaiming, “PPI is up strong for Q1” or “PPI dropped in the 4th Qtr.” it helps to have an understanding that this may not be unusual at all and instead may be the norm.


PPI Construction Materials Inputs Index 2-20-18

Constant Dollar Construction Growth


Construction spending had been chugging along very nicely from 2012 through 2016 with annual growth ranging between +6.5% and +11.0%. The average spending growth for those 5 years is 8.5%/yr. For 2017, spending growth will come in at only just over 5%.

Perhaps what may be more important is the inflation adjusted growth or constant dollar growth. Constant dollar growth measures volume. Volume growth ranged from +3.0% to +8.0% in the 5 years from 2012 through 2016. The average constant$ growth for those 5 years is 5.4%/yr. The rest of the spending growth was inflation dollars. For example: a year in which spending growth is 7% but that has 4% inflation ends up with only 3% constant$ volume growth.

From 2005 peak volume ($1,448 bil in 2017$) to the lows reached in 2011 ($954 bil), constant dollar volume dropped 34%. Since the 2011 low, volume has increased 31%. In rapid growth years volume increases between 6% to 8%/yr. In average or low growth years, constant dollar volume growth ranges closer to 2% to 3%/yr.

Spend current vs constant 2017 11-8-17

2017 will post the highest composite construction inflation in 11 years, 4.5%. Residential inflation has averaged 6%/yr for the last 5 years. With 2017 at 5% construction spending growth, the lowest in six years, and at the highest inflation in years, 2017 volume growth will fall to only +0.6%.

Residential, with nearly 12% spending growth in 2017, still holds onto the best volume growth in 2017 at slightly over 5%. Residential has recorded the highest volume growth in 5 of the last 6 years, the lowest coming in at +5%, averaging 8%/yr for 6 years.

Nonresidential Buildings constant dollars is down slightly for 2017, posting a volume decline of -0.2%. This was predictable since Manufacturing, after recording 90% growth from 2011 to 2015, has worked off a big backlog and dropped 15% (from an all-time high) in the last two years, most of that drop in 2017. For 2017 that drop offset $8 billion of growth from other markets. Nonresidential Buildings volume increased 20% in the previous 3 years.

Non-building Infrastructure volume is down 6% in 2017 after growing only 5% in the previous 2 years. However, the non-building infrastructure sector led all growth in 2014 at +8.5%. It should be noted that 2015 posted the all-time high for Infrastructure spending. The largest declines since then are in Environmental Public Works projects, Sewer/Water/Conservation. All three markets posted declines in new project starts in 3 or 4 of the last 4 years. Spending in 2017 is down 17% from the most recent high in 2015.

Public works spending is responsible for 80% of the dollar decline in non-building infrastructure spending since the high in 2015.

In 2018, Nonresidential Buildings and Non-building Infrastructure lead spending growth.  Residential spending will slow considerably after six years of solid growth. Constant$ volume growth after inflation will climb back to +2.3% with the two nonresidential sectors over 5% and residential dropping to a volume decline.

Spend Sector Constant 2006-2018 11-2-17



These articles all relate to Constant dollars (Inflation Adjusted)

Inflation Index vs Spending

Constant Dollars – Impact of Inflation

Are We at New Peak Construction Spending?


Jobs vs Construction Volume – Imbalances


From January 2001 to June 2017, jobs growth exceeded construction volume growth by 13%. The attached plots show the imbalances in growth.

Jobs growth is # of jobs x hours worked.

Volume is construction spending adjusted for inflation, or constant $.

Sometimes rapid spending growth is accompanied by higher than average inflation. This occurred in the 1990’s and again in 2005-2006. While spending seems to indicate rapid growth, much of the growth in cost is inflation and volume growth can be significantly lower, even sometimes negative, as occurred in 2005-2006. However, jobs growth during these rapid spending growth periods appears to track much more in line with spending growth. This leads to over-hiring and a loss of productivity occurs.

There are two distinct periods when jobs growth advanced more rapidly than real construction volume, 2005-2006 and mid-2015 to mid-2017. In the eight year period in between, either jobs fell faster or, after January 2011, volume increased faster. If spending growth is used to compare, then jobs growth falls far short of construction spending. But, due to inflation, spending is not the correct parameter to compare to jobs. Jobs must be compared to volume. Since 2001, the imbalance shows jobs growth has exceeded volume growth.

2001 through mid-year 2017, jobs exceeded volume growth by 13%.

Jobs vs Volume 2001-2010 8-8-17

2001-2004 jobs and volume growth were nearly equal.

2005-2006 jobs growth exceeded volume growth by 20%. During this period, construction spending and volume reached a peak. From late 2004 into early 2006, we experienced 20% growth in spending, the most rapid growth period on record. But that was also the period of the most rapid inflation growth on record. Residential volume peaked in early 2006 but then dropped 20% by the end of 2006. Nonresidential spending was increasing, but almost all of the growth was inflation. Nonresidential volume remained flat through 2006. Inflation was greater than spending growth, so volume declined. Although volume declined, hiring continued and jobs increased by 15%.

2007-2010 volume exceeded jobs growth by 4%. Spending decreased by 30%. Both volume and jobs were in steep decline. More jobs declined than volume, however, this period started with nearly 20% excess jobs. For January 2010 to January 2011, jobs bounced around near bottom, but volume dropped 8% more. 2010 ended with an excess of 15% jobs. January 2011 was the low-point for jobs.

Jobs vs Volume 2011-2017 8-8-17

2011-June 2015 volume exceeded jobs growth by 10%. Spending increased by almost 40% and inflation was relatively low at only 3%/yr. This period helped absorb more than half of the excess jobs that were created in 2005-2006 and remained after 2010. By mid-2015, jobs exceeded volume by only 7%.

June 2015-June 2017  jobs growth exceeded volume by 7%.  Spending increased by 7%, but inflation was 7% over the same period.  Although volume was up and down, over this two-year period through June 2017 we posted zero growth in volume. All of the increase in spending was inflation. Jobs increased 7% in two years.

For the last 5 years, 2012-2016, jobs averaged 4.5%/yr. growth  Construction spending averaged 8.5%/yr. growth. Inflation, currently hovering around 4.5%, averaged about 3.5%/yr. during this period. So real volume growth was only 4% to 5%. In the first few years of the recovery, 2011-2014, the gap narrowed and volume improved over jobs, but for the last two years, jobs have been increasing faster than volume.

I do expect spending to continue at a 6% to 7% growth rate at least through 2018. But also, I expect inflation at 4% to 4.5%. If the spending forecast holds, and if jobs growth comes into balance, then that would indicate only a 2% to 3% jobs growth rate from now through 2018.

Also SEE Construction Jobs Growing Faster Than Volume 5-5-17

and Is There a Construction Jobs Shortage?  3-10-17

Here is the 11-7-17 extension of latest info Construction Jobs / Workload Balance

Construction Forecasting Presentation

Attached PDF of my Forecasting presentation delivered 5-22-17 at Advancing Building Estimation in Houston

EdZ presentation ABE Forecasting Costs 5-22-17

A few bullets from this presentation

  • Construction Starts is not construction spending
  • Cash flow = Spending = Revenue
  • Revenue is not Volume of work
  • Spending minus inflation = Volume
  • Understand what’s in an Index to avoid misguided inflation adjustments
  • We can’t ignore productivity
  • Spending activity has just as much influence on inflation as labor and material cost.


Slides in this presentation come from the following articles:

1st Qtr Update 2017 Construction Spending Forecast

Inflation Index vs Spending

Construction Jobs Growing Faster Than Volume

Construction Inflation Index Tables

Inflation Index vs Spending

The two plots lined up here represent spending and spending corrected for inflation or real volume growth in the top plot versus construction inflation in the bottom plot. On the Inflation plot, the black line represents final selling price, actual inflation. The red line represents the ENR Building Cost Index which is a fixed market basket of labor and materials, not a complete selling price index. All plots are for nonresidential buildings only.

The index shows how cost inflation climbs in periods when spending is accelerating and the index slows when spending is increasing slowly. Also we can see that the major decline in spending resulted in a major deflation in the index. Note the ENR BCI does not show the major decline in the inflation index. That’s because the ENR BCI is not final selling price. It shows what the cost of labor and materials did during that period,  but does not capture how contractors adjusted their margins down so deeply due to loss of volume.

The takeaway from this comparison is this:

  • Labor and material indices do not show what real total inflation is doing
  • When spending increases rapidly, inflation increases rapidly
  • When spending increases slowly, inflation increases slowly
  • An understanding of which direction and how much spending is moving is more important to predicting inflation than the change in the cost of labor and materials


Index vs Spending 1993-2016 5-13-17


See Also 1st Qtr Update 2017 Construction Spending Forecast

Is There a Construction Jobs Shortage?


The imbalance between construction spending and construction jobs is nothing new. It’s been going on for years. It reflects more than just worker shortages. It captures changes in productivity due to activity. It also helps explain why sometimes new jobs growth rates do not follow directly in step with spending growth. A big part is that it reflects hiring practices. That imbalance can be affected by either over or under-staffing and that can be affected by inflation.

2000-2008 The Expansion

For the 1st several years, nonresidential construction spending was flat or down. Then for two years spending was up only slightly, but constant $ volume (spending inflation adjusted) had actually decreased. Nonresidential jobs fell from 2001-2003 but then grew for several years during this period when constant $ volume was decreasing, creating productivity losses.

On the other hand, residential spending grew 80%, but after adjusted for inflation, volume grew only 23%. Most staffing increases during this period were for residential construction and jobs/volume growth was pretty consistent. Residential saw mixed productivity during this period. In 2006 residential volume had already started declining.

It is not uncommon when work is plentiful that productivity declines. In 2004-2005, spending increased by 24%, but inflation was hovering around 8% to 9%/year. Constant $ volume (spending after inflation) increased by only 6%. Jobs grew faster, by 9%. Net productivity decline.

In 2006, nonresidential work was starting to take off, increasing 45% from 2006 though 2008. During this period jobs increased by only 8% and volume added 16%. Excess volume was able to absorb a good portion of the jobs/volume imbalance from 2000-2006.

See the line chart below “Productivity = Annual $ Put-In-Place per worker. These up or down periods for each of these sectors discussed here can easily be seen in rising or falling $PIP volume on that chart, sectors plotted separately. The bar graph “Total Annual Productivity Change”, is the composite total of the three sector graphs.


Net volume in 2006 declined, but jobs increased another 5%. For the three-year period 2004-2006, spending increased by 28%, but after inflation, real volume increased by less than 5%. Jobs increased by 14%. Productivity declined by nearly 10%.

Heading into 2007, residential firms had excess staff, as measured by the negative imbalance of jobs/volume. Compounding productivity issues, when spending started to decrease significantly, it took longer for companies to downsize their workforce. The workforce was not reduced to match the volume of work lost. Residential construction was first to show the strain, already having started to decline in 2006 and continuing to decline through 2009.

2006-2010 The Residential Recession

Residential construction was 1st hit by the recession in early 2006.  For the 4 years 2006-2009, residential volume dropped 55%. It remained flat for two more years, down a few more percent. Over six years starting 2006, residential jobs dropped only 40%.

The Annual $ PIP line chart above shows that for 2006-2009 there were only residential losses, or negative balance between jobs/volume. Both nonresidential sectors were improving slightly at the time. The total negative bars in those years is entirely due to residential.

2009-2011 The Nonresidential Recession

Nonresidential Buildings construction didn’t fall into recession until 2009. In the two years 2009-2010, nonresidential buildings lost over 30% in volume but only 22% in jobs.

This chart simply shows the imbalance between the number of jobs and the dollar volume of work put in place for each year compared to the year before. In a simple form that can be referred to as a change in productivity. In all these charts, jobs/year are adjusted for hours worked and dollars are always constant $ inflation adjust to 2016$.

Prod ALL 2001-2016 3-9-17

In 2009 my chart shows a huge productivity gain. It is almost entirely due to Non-building infrastructure, which never did fall into deep recession. Combined residential and nonresidential buildings only in 2009 would have shown a net 1% gain.

2011-2012 Early Recovery

Starting 2011, firms had lost significant revenue but had retained more staff than needed. There was so much excess staff (in relation to how much total revenue was available) that almost no reasonable gains in spending could wipe away the losses in productivity. Volume improved by 1%, but hiring resumed and jobs grew by 1%. Due to excess staff still on payrolls, productivity showed a 6% decline.

For the next few years, when we look at jobs growth vs. volume growth, there is reason to believe that slow jobs growth (2011 through 2013) may not be all due to labor shortages. Although we lost more than 2 million jobs, there remained excess jobs when compared to the amount of volume that was available.

At least part of the blame for slower new jobs growth was that excess staff already on hand were being absorb by the new spending gains. For a period there was insufficient volume out in the market to support all the staff that had remained on board. Finally, there was increased revenues which would first reabsorb part of the excess labor before rehiring started.

2012-2016 The Construction Boom

It took three more years to see a significant move towards balancing jobs and real volume. In 2014, jobs increased 6% and constant volume increased 7%. For the first nine months of 2015, jobs increased 3% and volume increased 8%. This was a good productivity balance period.In the three years 2012-2014, volume increased 16% but new jobs grew by only 11%. The increased work volume absorbed a good portion of the excess staffing.

What reasons could cause contractors to think they need more staff?

One reason may be that contractors don’t typically track revenues in constant dollars, they track in current dollars. So any comparison to a previous year is to inflated data. To achieve business plan growth of 6%/year, is it necessary to grow staff by 6%/year? Not if during that period inflation is 4%. Then real volume growth is only 2%/year and new staffing needs are far less than anticipated.

Basing staffing needs on current $ revenue growth can lead to the same kind of over-staffing we saw going into the recession. In the three years 2004-2006, construction spending increased 30%. Jobs increased 16%. However, during that three-year period construction inflation was the highest ever recorded, composite inflation averaging greater than 8%/year. After inflation, real construction volume increased only 4% during that period. Hiring far exceeded the rate of real volume growth. There is the potential that contractor’s hiring could be swayed by highly inflated spending when actually volume is not as strong as thought.

Spend Current vs Constant 2003-2016 3-9-17Jobs vs Hours 2011 to Dec 2016 3-9-17

From the Jan 2011 bottom of the construction recession through Dec 2016, both work output (jobs x hours worked) and volume (spending after adjustment for inflation) increased equally by 29%.

(note: BLS revisions to hours worked, issued in the 3-10-17 release changed total growth output from 29% to 30%).

There are always unequal up and down years, but this longer term period shows balanced growth returned after a tumultuous period. We were so far down on the scale after the recession it seems reasonable that we experienced this re-balancing.

Both 2014 and 2015 show productivity gains. That is unusual in that there have not been two consecutive years of productivity gains in 23 years (while my jobs data goes back to 1970, spending data goes back only to 1993).

The trend changed in October of 2015. Now when we look at jobs growth vs. volume growth, there is reason to believe that any jobs growth slow-down may be at least in part due to recent over-hiring.

2014-2016 Record Jobs Growth

In the last three years, we’ve added 840,000 construction jobs. We’ve also increased hours worked to an equivalent to 880,000 jobs, growth of 15%. That’s a faster rate of growth in three years than the 2004-2006 construction boom. To help explain that growth, real volume in 2014-2016 was far greater than the volume in 2004-2006, or any other three-year period for that matter. The last time we’ve seen jobs growth like this was 1995-1999.

2012 through 2016 is the greatest construction boom on record, whether measuring unadjusted current $ spending or constant $ real volume after inflation, flying past the 2000-2005 boom and narrowly beating out 1995-2000. And we started 2017 with backlog at a record level, so the boom continues.

5-Year Construction Booms Compared to 2012-2016  

  • 2012 – 2016 current $ +$377 bil +48% — constant $ +265 bil +29%
  • 2001 – 2005 current $ +$314 bil +39% — constant $ +30 bil <3%
  • 1996 – 2000 current $ +$254 bil +46% — constant $ +235 bil +21%

Notice how little growth actually occurred in the five-year period 2001 through 2005. While there was significant spending growth, most of it was inflation, and 90% of it was residential. During that period composite inflation increased more than 35%. Also, nonresidential construction was having a setback, dropping 15% in volume in that five years. The real story out of the 2001-2005 boom period is to compare residential work.

  • 2012 – 2016 Rsdn current $ +$211 bil +83% — constant $ +146 bil +46%
  • 2001 – 2005 Rsdn current $ +$280 bil +80% — constant $ +132 bil  +23%

Residential inflation 2001-2005 was a whopping 47%. But, total residential spending was up 80%. After adjusting for inflation, residential still added 23% to volume during that period. During both periods, residential volume grew more than jobs, so both periods had a net productivity gain.

Also in 2001-2005, nonresidential added 3% more jobs in a five year period in which volume dropped 15%. The very high levels of inflation help explain why staff may have grown to such excess during that period. Contractors were seeing revenues grow by 20%-30% and were slowly adding jobs in a period when real volume was dropping 3% per year.With the exception of residential growth, there was a downturn in other work. New jobs increased by only 11%, but due to rampant inflation, real volume increased by less than 3%. Nonresidential contributed all the negative productivity in 2001-2005.

2014-2015  Construction Spending for the Record Books

  • 2014 to 2015 current $ +$206 bil +23% — constant $ +158 bil +16%

No two consecutive years of construction come close to equaling the real volume put-in-place during 2014-2015. The two years 2004-2005 had greater growth in spending, but most of that was inflation, so had little growth in volume. In fact, we would need to consider three consecutive years to come close to 2014-2015 and the three years that comes closest is 1996-1998 and that would still be a few percent short. This volume growth is driving huge jobs growth.

From October 2015 through March 2016, jobs growth was exceptional. During that 6 month period we added 215,000 construction jobs, the fastest jobs growth period in a decade. That period topped off the fastest two years of jobs growth in 10 years. Record increases in jobs growth are not what we might expect if there is a labor shortage.

And yet, the Jobs Opening and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) is the highest it’s been in many years and that is a signal of difficulty in filling open positions. But, one of the known factors during a high level of market activity (lot’s of construction work – we are at record levels) is that workers know there is another and sometimes better job just down the road. During high levels of activity, unless the current employer is paying some kind of premium to keep them, workers may leave for greener pastures. That creates a high level of job churn.

Hiring Changes Lag Volume Changes

It is important to take note that it appears the two most recent six-month surges in jobs lag the period of greatest volume growth. I noted earlier that contractor staffing changes seem to lag movements in volume.

Since Sep 2015, jobs have been increasing more than real construction volume. For much of 2014 and 2015 construction spending real volume growth was exceeding jobs growth. Spending in 2016 slowed from the all-time record levels. That’s not totally unexpected as it would be highly unusual for that record level of growth to continue. But hiring continues.

Since Sept 2015, construction volume growth (spending minus inflation) slowed or stalled and completely contrary to what one would expect in a labor shortage, new jobs growth has been exceeding volume.

  • From Sep15 to Mar16  jobs increased+3.3%, volume increased +1.6%
  • From Mar16 to Aug16  jobs had no change, volume decreased -3.3%
  • From Aug16 to Feb17  jobs increased +2.6%, volume increased +0.10%

This most recent six-month period posted 177,000 jobs, the 3rd best for any consecutive six months since 2005-2006. Although we experienced a slow down in new jobs through the middle of 2016, that was bracketed by two of the three strongest six month growth periods in more than 10 years. For 18 months Sep’15 to Feb’17, jobs are up 7% higher than volume. For 2012-2014 volume grew 6% more than jobs.

For 2017, several economists are predicting total construction spending will increase by just over 6% (including my estimate of 6.5%). However, I’m also predicting that combined construction inflation for all sectors will increase by about 4.5%. That leaves us with a net real volume growth of only 2.0%. Therefore, for 2017, I do not expect jobs to increase by more than 2.0%, or 140,000. That number seems hard to swallow given we are already at 98,000 in the first two months. But remember, jobs have been growing faster than volume for the last 17 months. We could be due for another no-jobs-growth absorption period.

If jobs increase more than 140,000 and both spending and inflation hold to my predictions, then jobs will continue to outpace volume and that will show up on my plot as a productivity loss for 2017. Jobs have been getting ahead of volume for 17 months. Contractors may still be hiring, lagging the movement in real volume growth. It will take the next few months to see if that is the case but I would expect jobs growth to slow or stop for the next few months and I would not attribute that to labor shortages. As we’ve seen before, we should expect jobs/volume to come back to balance.  (post note: following Jan-Feb when, after revisions, we added 88k jobs, in the next 5 months we added only 13k jobs. Jobs growth almost stopped for 5 months.)  

So, here we are powering our way through the greatest construction expansion ever recorded, with three years of jobs growth at a 11-year high and jobs growing faster than volume for the past 17 months. Does that seem like a jobs shortage to you?

For a continuation of this discussion see A Harder Pill To Swallow! and Construction Jobs Growing Faster Than Volume

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