Construction’s employment climbed by 110,000 in March and its jobless rate improved from February’s level. But the measures still lagged year-earlier levels, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics said April 2.

The latest BLS report on the nation’s employment showed that construction’s March jobless rate fell to 8.6%, from 9.6% in February, but it still far exceeded the 6.9% measure in March 2020.

The March jobs increases spanned all construction market sectors. Nonresidential specialty trades was the pacesetter, adding 38,200 positions.

Heavy and civil engineering, which encompasses infrastructure work, posted an increase of 27,300, and residential specialty trade firms picked up 26,800.

The residential buildings segment gained 10,200 and nonresidential buildings recorded an increase of 7,600, BLS numbers show.

The March increases followed a drop of 56,000 jobs in February, according to revised BLS figures. The bureau said that the February losses “were likely weather-related.” That was a reference to heavy storms and severe cold weather in the South.

Construction's total employment was down by 91,000, or 1.2%, for the 12 months ended March 31.

Architectural and engineering services, which BLS separates from the construction category, posted an increase of 7,400 jobs in March.

The BLS unemployment rates are not adjusted for seasonal variations; the numbers of jobs are seasonally adjusted.

Richard Branch, chief economist of Dodge Data & Analytics, said "continued improvement in the economy over the next few months should translate into slow, but steady, gains for construction jobs."

He noted, however, "rapidly rising" materials prices that are "a critical risk and could limit the ability of the construction sector to take advantage of the rising economic tide."

Branch pointed to "weakness" in Dodge construction starts, which have declined for the last four months through February, with recovery in one leading building construction indicator limited to warehouses, hospitals, and labs.
The trends suggest "that hopes for a rapid turnaround in construction activity in 2021 may need to be tempered," he said.

Ken Simonson, Associated General Contractors of America’s chief economist, said in a statement, that "contractors face growing challenges that imperil further growth in nonresidential employment.”

He cited project postponements and cancellations, as well as sharp rises in costs and extended delivery times for construction materials.

Simonson said nonresidential construction employment is still down by 4.9%, or 231,000 positions, from the February 2020 pre-pandemic high point.

By comparison, residential construction showed a gain of 49,000 jobs, or 1.6%. in that same period.

Anirban Basu, chief economist for the Associated Builders and Contractors, was more enthusiastic, foreseeing a "tsunami of economic and employment growth across America,” he said in a statement.

An ABC employment analysis, released March 23, showed construction companies will need to hire 430,000 more workers in 2021 than were on the job last year.

“Much of the stimulus to come will directly affect construction, particularly the heavy and civil engineering segment.” he said.

Basu acknowledges risks, including the large amount of federal borrowing to fund the economic stimulus, and price hikes in materials such as softwood lumber and diesel fuel. But he added, “For now, it is all systems go.”

Overall, BLS reported the U.S. economy gained a strong 916,000 jobs in March, with the jobless rate falling to 6%, from 6.2% in February. Still, the rate was much higher than the 4.4% in March 2020.