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Numbers Game

Every month, the U.S. BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) issues a report on the number of jobs filled in the previous month and the number of jobs unfilled. Raw numbers like these are the playground for analysts and pundits alike, and everyone wants to play. Associations in every industry sift through the figures looking for (a) positive results in their sector and/or (b) alarming statistics from their sector. Construction is no different.

In November 2023, BLS reported total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 199,000 and the unemployment rate edged down to 3.7%. Job gains occurred in health care and government. Employment also increased in manufacturing, reflecting the return of workers from a strike. Employment in retail trade declined.

This news represents statistics from two monthly surveys: the household survey measures labor force status, including unemployment, by demographic characteristics while the establishment survey measures nonfarm employment, hours, and earnings by industry. Employment showed little change over the month in major industries, including mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction; construction; wholesale trade; financial activities; professional and business services; and other services.

The survey’s used contain crosstabs that allow you to get a great deal of granular data—numbers for various demographic segments and regions, for example. That data is where the associations, trade groups, newspapers, and others find their numbers to report. For better or worse, the data used is usually “cherry picked” for effect.

As an example, personal finance experts at Wealth of Geeks analyzed data from the BLS on the job openings across industries in the U.S. Using their report for September 2023, they showed that the BLS “revealed that the total number of job openings in all industries across the U.S. was 9.553 million, which is a decrease from the 10.854 million job openings in September 2022. However, there has been a marked increase from August this year, which saw a total of 9.497 million job openings.”

They broke down the totals, using the crosstabs, and indicated, “The education and health services top the list as the industry with the most job openings at a significant 1.931 million. Popular jobs within this sector include registered nurses with an average salary of $92,688, nursing assistants where the average salary is $44,614, and healthcare managers, who earn approximately $77,714.”

Further down the list was construction: “Construction ranks eighth among the industries with the most job openings, with 431,000. Jobs within this sector include construction laborers earning $39,009 on average, construction project managers with an average salary of $92,967, and quantity surveyors who are paid approximately $48,684 each year.”

Trade groups especially like to analyze BLS number for their segment. The AGC (Associated General Contractors of America) reported, in analyzing government data for November 2023, the construction sector job gains slowed as firms added only 2,000 jobs, but wages for hourly employees accelerated and the number of unfilled positions reached record highs in October. Association officials said the new figures indicate the slowdown in hiring is likely because of workforce shortages instead of declining need for labor.

AGC found construction employment in November totaled 8,033,000, seasonally adjusted, an increase of 2,000 from October. The sector has added 200,000 jobs during the past 12 months. That was a gain of 2.6%, which outpaced the 1.8% job growth in the overall economy.

Breaking it down further, residential building and specialty trade contractors added 1,000 employees in November and 53,000 (1.6%) during the next 12 months. Employment at nonresidential construction firms—nonresidential building and specialty trade contractors along with heavy and civil engineering construction firms—climbed by 1,400 positions for the month and 147,800 (3.2%) since November 2022.

Association officials said labor shortages were holding back growth for the construction industry and the broader economy by limiting the number of new, high-paying jobs being created. They urged federal, state, and local policy makers to boost investments in construction education and training programs to expose more people to career opportunities in the sector. They also called on federal officials to allow more people to legally enter the country to work in the industry as short-term relief until more domestic workers are available.

Asking Congress and the government—federal, state, and even city—to intervene in their segment is a common response to BLS and other department reports. And when a bill is introduced, even before it passes, associations often compliment the authors in hopes it will nudge the body politic to improve the association’s segment.

An example is the NUCA (National Utility Contractors Assn.). It issued a statement on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s markup of the PIPES (Pipeline Efficiency and Safety) Act (H.R. 6494) of 2023. The bill addresses damage prevention, a recurring and costly issue afflicting the utility construction industry. NUCA members work to perform superior work while providing a safe and effective work environment, and damage prevention is and remains a fundamental part of that process.

Having a politically connected trade association can benefit the company and its employees. As the data is crunched and the numbers flow each month, getting that information out to the public, the politicians, and the media as well as to its members is important. Association managers are usually the fastest to react and know their audience.

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