The Construction industry's unemployment rate increased in January to 17.7%, from December’s 16%, but it was much lower than January 2011’s mark of 22.5%, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported.

BLS's  latest monthly employment update, released on Feb. 3, also showed that construction gained a further 21,000 jobs in January, after adding 31,000 in December.  That brings the industry's total employment to its highest level in two years, according to Ken Simonson, Associated General Contractors of America chief economist.

January also marked the 16th-straight month in which construction’s jobless rate was lower than its year-earlier figure. 

The BLS industry rates are not adjusted for seasonal variations. Construction’s rate generally worsens in winter months, when the volume of building drops.

Nearly all construction sectors posted gains in jobs last month. Heavy and civil construction was the lone exception, recording a decline of 1,400. Another encouraging note came in architectural and engineering services, which added 6,900 jobs last month. Design services numbers are not included in the BLS construction category.

AGC's Simonson said the construction’s industry’s two-month 52,000 job gain is “great news,” but cautioned that the increase came during periods of unusually mild winter weather.

He said, “It will take another month or two to see if the recent job growth reflects a sustained pickup or merely acceleration of homebuilding and highway projects that normally halt when the ground freezes in December and January.”

Simonson noted that construction employment is up by 116,000, or 21%, over the past 12 months, but is still down 28% from April 2006’s peak of 7.7 million. 

Anirban Basu, Associated Builders and Contractors chief economist, said, "Clearly the recovery in private construction has been accelerating." Basu said job growth was especially strong in the manufacturing, commercial and power industries. But he noted that "the impact of strained public finances also continues to be apparent," pointing to the reduction in heavy-civil construction jobs last month.

There were other negatives in the BLS report—construction’s jobless rate was the highest among major U.S. injury categories and also was more than double the overall U.S. level.