The Who’s Better Off Game:Construction Workers

On the surface, construction employees look to have benefited from four years of George W. Bush. While the industry has cooled from the heady days of the late ’90’s, total employment is growing, and wages are higher. But the overall picture can be misleading. Construction is regionally fractured, and while workers in some states are doing well, those in other areas have suffered…

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It isn’t hard to find the gray lining in construction’s silver cloud. While the industry is growing, jobs are vanishing and wages are dropping in many of the largest states. Carpenters, the largest single group of constuction employees, have been hard hit; between 2000 and 2003, more than 11,000 carpentry jobs were eliminated. And wages are actually slipping behind costs — in the same period, inflation-adjusted income for carpenters dropped by more than 1 percent. Even in states where new carpentry jobs have been created, like California, wages are lagging slightly behind the cost of living. And in states where the industry has not rebounded, like Pennsylvania, the gap is growing; between 2000 and 2003, carpenters in Pennsylvania actually lost more than 3 percent in real income.

Construction laborers, the lowest-paid group of workers, are even worse off. Nationwide, jobs for unskilled construction laborers have remained static at about 201,000. But those numbers are misleading. In dozens of states, like New York, Ohio, and Michigan, laborer jobs have dropped by between 15 and 20 percent. And even in states where laborers can find work, like Illinois, where more than 5,000 new laborer jobs were created between 2000 and 2003, wages have slumped. Adjusted for inflation, construction laborers in Illinois were earning nearly 3 percent less in the summer of 2003 than they were in the summer of 2000.

Construction managers have not been spared — at least, not entirely. Nationwide, there are nearly 5 percent fewer general managers employed by construction companies today than in 2000. But at least managers aren’t worrying about wages. Real income for constuction managers has skyrocketed by nearly 20 perecent since 2000.

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