Construction’s unemployment rate rose slightly, to 17.2% in March, from February’s 17.1%, as the industry lost an estimated 7,000 jobs last month. But the rate was better than March 2011's mark of 20%. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest monthly status report on the employment picture, released on April 6, showed that jobs lost in the buildings-construction sector outweighed gains in the heavy-civil and residential specialty trades segments.

Architectural and engineering services, a separate BLS category, added 3,600 jobs last month.

The overall national unemployment rate dipped in March, to 8.2% from the previous month’s 8.3%, as the economy gained 120,000 jobs. Stronger jobs growth had been anticipated.

Anirban Basu, Associated Builders and Contractors chief economist, called the BLS report “disappointing, particularly for construction.” Basu added, “The first quarter of 2012 will be judged as a step backward for the industry as construction spending levels stagnated and employment momentum disappeared.”

BLS jobless rates for construction and other industries are adjusted for seasonal variations. The amount of construction work tends to decline in the winter and pick up in spring and summer. 

March was the 15th-straight month in which construction’s jobless rate was better then the year-earlier level.

Ken Simonson, Associated General Contractors of America chief economist, noted that although the industry’s unemployment rate has dropped over the past 12 months, its total workforce has only risen by 1%, or 55,000 positions.

Simonson says those trends imply that workers have left the industry.