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Articles Detailing 2018 Construction Outlook
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These links point to articles here on this blog that summarize end-of-year data for 2017 and present projections for 2018.
Most Recently Published
New Starts and 2017 Starting Backlog
2018 Spending Forecast
During the period including 2011 through 2017, we had record construction spending, up 50% in 5 years, moderate inflation reaching as high as 4.6% but averaging 3.8%, record construction volume growth (spending minus inflation), up 30% in 5 years and the the 2nd highest rate of jobs growth ever recorded. Construction added 1,339,000 jobs in the last 5 years. The only time in history that exceeded jobs growth like that was the period 1993-1999 with the highest 5-year growth ever of 1,483,000 jobs. That same 93-99 period had the previous highest spending and volume growth. 2004-2008 would have reached those lofty highs but the residential recession started in 2006 and by 2008 spending had already dropped 50%, offsetting the highest years of nonresidential growth ever posted.
The point made here is the period 2011-2017 shows spending and jobs at or near record growth. Although 2017 slowed, there is no widespread slowdown in volume or jobs growth.
This 2011-2017 plot of Construction Jobs Growth vs Construction Volume Growth seems to show there is no jobs shortage. In fact it shows jobs are growing slightly faster than volume. But that just does not sit well with survey data from contractors complaining of jobs shortages. So how is that explained?
There have been cries from some quarters, including this blog, that the answer lies in declining productivity. There seems to be plenty of workers, but it now takes more workers to do the same job that took fewer in the past. As we will see, that is part of the answer, but doesn’t explain why some contractors need to fill vacant positions. To find data that might answer that question about a jobs shortage we must dig a little deeper.
The total jobs vs volume picture masks what is going on in the three major sectors, Residential, Nonresidential Buildings and Non-Building Infrastructure. A breakout of jobs and volume growth by sector helps identify the imbalances and helps explain construction worker shortages. It shows the residential sector at a jobs deficit.
2011-2017 % jobs growth vs % volume growth (based on annual averages)
- Totals All Construction Jobs +31% Volume +30%
- Nonres Bldgs Jobs +27% Volume +19%
- Nonbldg Hvy Engr Jobs +21% Volume +12%
- Residential Jobs +40% Volume +54%
The totals show jobs and volume almost equal, data that supports the 2011-2017 totals plot above and what we would expect in a balanced market. But severe imbalances show up by sector. Both nonresidential sectors jobs growth far outpaced volume growth. Residential stands out with a huge deficit.
Just looking at 2017 growth shows the most recent imbalances.
2017 % jobs growth vs % volume growth
- Totals All Construction Jobs +3.4% Volume -0.8%
- Nonres Bldgs Jobs +3.3% Volume -1.6%
- Nonbldg Hvy Engr Jobs +1.7% Volume -6.0%
- Residential Jobs +3.5% Volume +4.2%
Census recently released initial construction spending for 2017, totaling $1.230 trillion, up only 3.8% from 2016. What is somewhat disconcerting is that 2017 construction spending initial reports growth of 3.8% do not even match the total inflation growth of 4.6% for 2017, indicating a -0.8% volume decline. However, as does always occur, I’m expecting upward revisions (estimated +2%) to 2017$ construction spending on 7-1-18. If we don’t get an upward revision, then 2017 will go down as the largest productivity decline since recession. Even if we do get +2% upward revision to 2017$ spending, 2017 volume would be revised up to +1.2% and jobs growth will still exceed volume growth.
Let’s look a little deeper at the data within the sectors. Each chart is set to zero at Jan 2011 so we can see the change from that point, the low point of the recession, until today. At the bottom of each chart is shown a Balance at start. That represents the cumulative surplus or deficit of jobs growth compared to volume growth for the previous 10 years prior to Jan 2011. If there are no changes in productivity, or no surplus or deficit to counteract, then jobs should grow at the same pace as volume.
There are slight differences between the data in the three sector charts and the total construction chart. The sector charts use annual avg data and the totals chart uses actual monthly data.
Nonresidential Buildings and Non-building Infrastructure, over seven years and the most recent three years, show jobs increasing far more rapidly than volume. Nonresidential Buildings started 2011 with a surplus of jobs after the recession, but Infrastructure started 2011 with a substantial deficit of jobs. Only in this last year did Infrastructure jobs reach long-term balance with work volume.
Nonresidential Buildings started 2011 with a 13% surplus of jobs and more than doubled it in the seven years following. I’ve said this before, but it could be a large part of this surplus is due to companies hiring to meet revenue (not inflation adjusted volume). While nonresidential volume since 2010 has increased only 12%, spending actually increased 43%. Since 2010 there has been 30% nonresidential buildings inflation, which adds zero to volume growth and zero need for new jobs. A 43% increase in spending could lead companies to erroneously act to staff up to meet spending, or revenue.
This plot for residential work shows from 2011 to the end of 2017, we’ve experienced a 20% growth deficit in jobs. How many residential jobs does this 20% growth deficit represent? From Jan 2011 through Dec 2017, residential jobs increased from approximately 2,000,000 to 2,700,000. So the base on which the % growth increased over that time is calculated on 2,000,000. An additional 20% growth would be a maximum of 400,000 more jobs needed to offset the seven year deficit. But what about the imbalances that existed when we started the period?
During the residential recession from just 2005 through 2010, residential volume declined by 55%, but jobs were reduced by only 38%. For the entire period 2001-2010, total volume of work declined by 14% more than jobs were reduced. Some of the surplus jobs get absorbed into workforce productivity losses and some remain available to increase workload. It’s impossible to tell how much of that labor force would be available to absorb future work, so for purposes of this analysis an estimate of at least 5% seems not unreasonable. That would mean for 2011-2017, instead of a need for an additional 20% more jobs, the need could be reduced by 5% or 100,000 jobs.
This analysis shows a current deficit of 300,000 to 400,000 residential jobs. While it does also show Nonresidential Buildings jobs far exceed the workload and there are more than enough surplus jobs to offset the Residential deficit, there would be several questions of how transferable jobs might be between sectors.
- Are there highly technical specialty jobs in Nonresidential Buildings that would not be transferable to Residential?
- What is the incidence of specialty workers engaging in work across sectors? i.e., job is counted in one sector but working in another sector.
- What has been the impact of losing immigrants from the construction workforce?
- Is the ratio of immigrant workers in Residential much higher than Nonresidential?
- Is the pay more attractive in Nonresidential construction?
- What, if any, percentage of the Residential workforce is not being counted? Day labor?
I think most of these would have a more negative impact on Residential jobs. However, there is some possibility that the overall deficit may not be quite as high as available data show (points 2 and 6). And there is always the possibility that we’ve crossed a threshold that has led to new gains in productivity, although to some extent, the stark differences between Residential and Nonresidential Buildings data might counter that proposition.
The best way to see the implications that the available data do show is to look at productivity. The simplest presentation of productivity measures the total volume of work completed divided by the number of workers needed to put the volume of work in place, or $Put-in-Place per worker. In this case, $ spending is adjusted for inflation to get a measure of constant $ volume, and jobs are adjusted for hours worked.
As the Residential jobs deficit increases vs workload, this plot shows that $PIP is increasing. That makes sense. The workload continues to increase and the jobs growth is lagging, so the $PIP per worker goes up. For Nonresidential Buildings, the rate of hiring is exceeding the rate of new volume and therefore the $PIP is declining.
In boom times, residential construction adds between 150,000 and 170,000 jobs per year and has only twice since 1993 added 200,000 jobs per year. In the most recent several years expansion, residential has reached a high of 156,000 jobs in one year but has averaged 130,000 per year over 5 years. So it’s pretty unlikely that we are about to start adding residential construction jobs at a continuous rate of 200,000+ jobs per year. If residential jobs growth were to increase by 50,000 jobs per year over and above current average growth, it would take 6 to 8 years to wipe out the jobs deficit in residential construction.
This problem is not going away anytime soon.
For more history on jobs growth see Is There a Construction Jobs Shortage?
For more on the imbalances of Res and Nonres jobs see A Harder Pill To Swallow!
For some hypotheses as to why nonresidential imbalances continue to increase see Construction Spending May 2017 – Behind The Headlines
The last time construction jobs and workload were balanced was 2005. From 2006 through early 2011, workload dropped 15% greater than the decline in jobs. In other words, compared to 2005, contractors started the post-recession period in 2011 with 15% less workload on hand compared to the number of workers kept on staff and that resulted in the period 2006-2011 posting the largest productivity decline ever recorded.
For a discussion on data plotted 2001 to 2011, see this post Jobs vs Construction Volume – Imbalances. In the 2001-2011 plot above, jobs and workload are set to zero baseline in Jan 2001. This shows all of 2001 through 2004 that jobs/workload was balanced. The gap between the red and the blue lines above is the variance from zero change in Jobs/Workload balance. By Jan 2011 there was a 15% workload deficit.
The 1st quarter of 2011 was a dramatic turning point. Both jobs and work volume began to increase. To visualize the variance since Jan 2011, the following plot resets jobs and workload to zero baseline in Jan 2011.
From Jan 2011 to Jun 2015, construction volume increased 24% in 4 1/2 years. Staffing output increased 19% in the same period. Contractors may still feel the effects from not being able to grow staff at that same pace as volume during that period. However, we did see the larger work volume increases make up 5% of the 15% workload deficit from the previous period 2006-2011, but it loses sight of the fact that after almost five years we had not recouped the entire lost work output from all the other 10% staff imbalance that still remained.
Work output is defined as jobs x hours worked. Construction volume is defined as spending minus inflation.
From Jul 2015 to Oct 2017, volume increased just over 1% but jobs output grew by almost 7%. During that two year period, new jobs created plus the change in hours worked by the entire workforce grew 6% more than workload. Jobs increased greater than construction volume increased. The plot shows most of that variance occurred in 2015.
Shifting the time periods slightly gives another impression of the data, overall not much different. In discussions about Construction skilled labor shortages, it’s important to understand, both construction spending and volume are at record growth levels and jobs, since recession, and in last 3 yrs, have matched volume growth.
Overall, in the seven-year post-recession period Jan 2011 to Oct 2017, volume increased 25% and jobs output increased 26%. There seems very little room to be calling this a jobs shortage. Of course, this does not address skills.
So here we are most of the way through 2017 and if we look back at the last 11 years, not only are jobs once again increasing faster than workload, but also in total since 2005 we still have 14% staff that would need to be absorbed by new workload to return to the previous jobs/workload productivity balance.
Maybe it’s time we stop calling this a jobs shortage and start referring to it as a productivity challenge that needs to be turned around.
For an expansion of more information on this topic see Jobs vs Construction Volume – Imbalances posted 8-8-17. Included is the 2001-2011 plot that explains all of 2001 through 2011.
Also, Feb 208 article breaking out residential and nonresidential sectors shows surplus in nonres and deficit in residential Residential Construction Jobs Shortages
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%.
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.
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.
Here is the 11-7-17 extension of latest info Construction Jobs / Workload Balance
Jobs growth slowed in the last two months adding only 6,000 construction jobs since February. However, a longer term look at jobs x hours worked vs volume growth gives better information.
In the following plot Jobs (red line) = # of jobs x hours worked and Construction Volume (blue line) = construction spending in constant $ (adjusted for inflation). Unless we make these two adjustments we cannot compare jobs to construction spending and get any meaningful analysis from the data.
I’ve written about this in-depth in these two articles.
You can see in the plot above from Jan 2011 to Mar 2013 both jobs growth and volume growth balanced. Then again by August 2014 jobs growth caught up to volume growth. It was the period from Aug 2014 to Jul 2015 when volume took off and climbed much faster than jobs growth. But then, since July 2015, jobs have been increasing faster than construction volume growth.
In a plot of this information back to 2005, it would show that by the end of 2010 there were already excess jobs. That is discussed in the attached articles. During the expansion, firms hired more employees than real work volume could support, then during the recession, firms held onto far more staff than was required to perform the available declining work volumes. So the chart above would start 2011 with an excess of jobs and really we needed to see work volume increase faster than jobs starting in 2011.
Long term, having started 2011 with not enough volume to support the remaining staff, we see two periods of growth in which jobs and volume were balanced, only one period where volume exceeded jobs growth and then this latest period, for the last 21 months, in which jobs are growing faster than volume.
There are many reports of job shortages and they appear to be genuinely accurate assessments, primarily regarding some very specific skilled labor positions. However, long term jobs vs volume data shows there is far more in play than not enough workers to hire. In fact, for the last 21 months, hiring has exceeded workload and that simply does not indicate an overall worker shortage.
I’ve been saying for a long time the data doesn’t show a construction jobs shortage.
In total, construction jobs have been increasing faster than construction volume (spending minus inflation). But, to get a better picture we need to look at jobs vs volume by sector, Residential and Nonresidential. Then we need to look at history.
Since 2009, RESIDENTIAL volume has increased 49%, jobs increased 22%. This is partly explained by absorption of excess staff retained during recession.
From 2006 to 2009 volume decreased 53% but jobs decreased only 36%, leaving a significant amount of excess jobs.
It looks like from 2009 to 2016 there has not been enough jobs growth to support the volume growth, BUT…
Residential net changes just since 2006, volume is down 29% while jobs are down 22%. We are not nearly back to pre-recession productivity.
Since 2009, NONRESIDENTIAL BUILDINGS volume is down by 10% but jobs are up 13%. By no means, if we look at just these 7 years, does this look like a jobs shortage.
Even previous years imbalance would not account for a need to add that many jobs. From 2006 to 2009 volume increased 2% but jobs decreased 15%. In a previous report Is There a Construction Jobs Shortage? I explained why this may occur following a prior top-heavy jobs expansion during a period of high inflation.
Nonresidential net changes just since 2006, volume is down 8% but jobs are down only 3%. Again, we are not nearly back to pre-recession productivity.
For both residential and nonresidential buildings, comparing post-recession growth to pre-recession 1996-2006 $ Put-In-Place per Job, productivity is down 21%, or we currently have 100/(100-21) = 27% more jobs now than it took before to get the same amount of work done.
If the current construction expansion period is viewed as having a jobs shortage, that claim demands that we must accept, since pre-recession, productivity has declined by 21% and the reason there is now a jobs shortage is that it takes 27% more jobs to put in place construction than it did on average from 1996 to 2006.
In my opinion, that’s a harder pill to swallow than a jobs shortage.
For more related to this discussion see 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$.
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.
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?
- In the six months from Oct’15 to Mar’16 construction added 225,000 jobs, the most in any six month period since the Oct-Mar 2005-2006, the very peak of the construction spending boom.
- 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.
- In order to track jobs growth compared to the real amount of work put-in-place, construction spending must be adjusted for inflation to get real volume of work completed. The adjustment gives us what is referred to as “constant dollars.” Jobs must be adjusted for hours worked.
- For much of 2014 and 2015 construction spending real volume growth was exceeding jobs growth, but for 10 months from August 2015 through May 2016, volume growth stalled and (completely contrary to what one would expect in a labor shortage) new jobs growth exceeded volume by 3%. Only in the last few months has volume growth begun to outpace jobs growth again.
- From the Jan 2011 bottom of the recession in construction to current, both net jobs (jobs x hours worked) and volume (spending after adjusted for inflation) have increased equally by 28%.
- For 2017, several economists (including myself) are predicting total construction spending will increase by just over 6%. However, I’m also predicting that combined construction inflation for all sectors will increase by 4.0% to 4.5%. That leaves us with a net volume growth of only 1.5% to 2.0%. Therefore, for 2017, we should not expect jobs to increase by more than 1.5% to 2.0%, or 100,000 to 140,000.
- Growth of only 100,00 to 140,000 new jobs in 2017 would be the slowest growth in 5 years and will look like a growth slowdown. Some might attribute it to lack of available workers. In large part it may be due to a balancing of workforce to real volume growth.
- Jobs growth is often slightly out-of-balance with real volume growth. But it does tend to come back to balance. If both were to grow at the same rate then productivity would remain unchanged. It will very likely vary slightly from balanced growth.
A few days ago I tweeted, “Last 16 months construction jobs growth outpaced growth in work put-in-place. Hard to see worker shortage from that perspective.”
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. In part it reflects hiring practices. It also 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. That imbalance can be affected by either over/under-staffing or inflation.
This post presents a series of graphics that show the data that is compared and the percentages of increases (or declines) in balance between workers and output.
What data is available?
We get construction spending from Census and jobs from Bureau of Labor Statistics. For both we can break down the numbers by major construction sectors, Residential, Nonresidential Buildings and Non-building Infrastructure. Inflation is gathered from a number of sources and is specific to sector.
How to look at the data.
Construction spending must be adjusted for inflation to get real volume of work completed. Inflation (or deflation) can vary up or down by 2% to 10% but averages about 4%/year. The adjustment gives us what is referred to as “constant dollars.” Jobs must be adjusted for hours worked. Hours worked can change total workforce output by 2%-3%/year. Everything is converted to the most recent year for comparison.
This Building Cost Index plot shows inflation/deflation by sector. Note that it can vary dramatically from one sector to another. It is often driven by the amount of work activity within the sector. These indexes represent the actual final cost of buildings.
The inflation factors are applied to the annual spending within each sector. This plot shows the combined affect of inflation on total construction output. Current dollars is actual construction spending as reported by U.S. Census. Constant $ is inflation adjusted to 2016. Jobs adjusted for hours worked must be compared to constant dollars.
This plot breaks down the construction spending in constant dollars by sector. This provides the total work completed annually within each sector. This will allow tracking jobs by sector to constant $ by sector.
This plot shows U.S.Census CES jobs by sector. These are adjusted by the hours worked average per year. Hours worked doesn’t change by much within a single year but has varied by 4.5% from maximum to minimum and that has a significant affect on overall output. Adjusted jobs provides us with the total work output.
Those are all the inputs, adjusted to a constant point in time, 2016. Now we can look at how adjusted jobs growth compares to real spending output. I’ve often referred to this as productivity. When spending output is growing faster than jobs, productivity is increasing. When jobs are growing faster than spending output, productivity is decreasing.
The difference between real spending output and jobs growth is more than simply explained as a change in productivity. It reflects the combined impact of hiring practices, hours worked, worker and skills shortages (or excesses) and changes in productivity on inflation adjusted spending. It does not provide a means to differentiate among these causes. However, regardless the cause, imbalances can be thought of as annual productivity gains or losses because they do indeed reflect the total real labor output required to perform the amount of real work put in place.
Leading up to and during the recession there appeared to be far more workers on hand than needed to get the work done. Prior to the recession, I expect a greater portion of the losses were over-hiring and worker productivity losses. It is not uncommon when work is plentiful that productivity declines (2005-2006). When spending started to decrease significantly it took a bit longer for companies to downsize their workforce. During that time (2007-2008) the greater portion of losses might be attributed to insufficient staffing reductions. As we approached the depths of the recession (2009-2010) staffing cuts exceeded the declines in actual work being put in place. Also, people who still had jobs were concerned about keeping their jobs and during such times at first productivity increases. At some point the insufficient staff becomes overworked and productivity declines (2010-2011). Post recession, spending increased faster than companies were replenishing their staff. That led to several years of productivity gains (2012-2015).
Another way to look at this same comparison is to plot the dollars of inflation adjusted volume of work per worker. Here I’ve plotted that by sector.
Some analysts prefer to report this as the number of jobs required to put-in-place $1 billion worth of work. Regardless how it is reported, it is imperative that the comparison be made to constant $, in this case adjusted here to 2016.
Finally we can look at the data for each sector and compare the work being completed each year to the total workforce output to complete that work. There are obviously significant differences in the data by sector.
The data outputs show some things that otherwise are not readily apparent. Note for instance that residential (constant $) spending peaked in 2005, but residential jobs peaked in 2006 when spending was already on the decline. That could be an indication that staffing patterns lag changes in work volume. From the 2005 peak to the 2008 bottom, residential spending declined from $700 billion to $300 billion, almost 60%, but jobs dropped from 3.5 million to 2 million, only about 45%. That would indicate that firms were significantly overstaffed at that time. That explains the several years of deep red bars on the residential productivity plot. That also helps explain in part the slow regrowth on residential jobs. For the real volume of work that was being completed at the time, which was real low, there was already excess staffing remaining on hand.
Work completed and worker output to complete the work will probably continue to be out of balance. It would be difficult to identify any abnormalities in the data releases, for example workers improperly classified to a sector. Any missing workers not captured in the survey would lower productivity. Real productivity gains and losses due to activity will always be a part of the mix. Hiring of less qualified workers due to skilled worker shortages is in the mix. And finally, companies delayed decisions on staffing adjustments will remain part of the issue.
For all of 2014-2015-2016
- Total Construction jobs increased from 5,950,000 to 6,700,000, +12.6%
- Total Construction spending increased from $960bil to $1,170bil, +22%
BUT, much of that spending increase is inflation. We need to compare to constant dollars which = Volume. Inflation was particularly high in residential work, over 15% for the 3 years, which means $1.00bil in spending 3 years ago would be worth more than $1.15bil today. Converting everything to constant Oct 2016 dollars, after inflation we get:
- Total Construction volume increased from $1,070bil to $1,170bil, +9.4%
So, for the 3 years, jobs increased by 12.6% while real work volume increased by 9.4%.
A more thorough analysis, which takes hours worked into consideration, shows from the Jan 2011 bottom of the recession in construction to current, both jobs and volume have increased equally by 28%. But jobs growth is often out-of-balance with real volume growth. In the beginning of the recession years of 2008-2011 firms let go of people much faster than work volume declined. 2009 showed a big gain in productivity. By 2010-2011 firms hadn’t let go enough to match the loss in spending. Then from 2012-2014 workload grew faster than firms filled jobs. Since 2011 we are sort of on an even keel.
For the last 3 years, jobs increased more than real construction volume. I pointed this out in my last detailed jobs report. The 6 months from Oct 2015 – March 2016 encompassed the fastest new construction jobs growth period in a decade. It’s no surprise to me that jobs growth has been slow since March this year. Frankly, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it remains slow for awhile. When we look at jobs growth vs. volume growth, there is reason to believe that slow jobs growth is not entirely due to labor shortages. Part of the blame is due to recent over-hiring.