Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.

In my opinion, it's the big issue underlying all construction industry news - as it's been for awhile now. Sure, the topic of "economic recovery" may be the first thought, but "jobs" is a close second - the flip side of the same coin, so to speak.

Whether front and center or in between the lines, the issue of "jobs" - and by logical extension, the jobless - is a steady part of the news lately. Whether it's a story about high-speed railCONEXPOa company that's hit hard times, or even some good news about a major project finally moving forward, the issue of jobs - lost, or perhaps, soon gained - is right there, perhaps unstated, perhaps hiding, but gnawing at our collective psyches nonetheless.

There's no doubt about it; it's a topic that's hard to talk about, or deal with. What can you say? What can you do?

Of course, it's a pretty dismal situation overall and especially so in the Southeast. For example, according to a recent newswire story about Florida's unemployment rate, via the St. Petersburg Times, "Since the Great Recession struck, the state has shed 350,000 construction jobs, cutting the industry by more than half."

Recent figures from Associated General Contractors of America, via the Bureau of Labor Statistics, indicate that in the last year alone - between February 2010 and February 2011 - Florida lost nearly 16,000 construction jobs, more than any other state in the nation. Georgia lost nearly 13,000 over the same time period, ranking 49th among the states and the District of Columbia in percentage terms. Meanwhile, North Carolina lost 6,400 construction jobs in the last year, and South Carolina shed 3,100. In all, that adds up to about 38,000 Southeast construction jobs lost in the last year alone.

Unfortunately, with the budget slashing that's occurring in Washington and state capitals across the country, the discussion - such as it is now - about jobs and the jobless has shifted, too. In fact, despite the still-dire situation, you could argue that there's been very little discussion about the impact these budget cuts will likely have on jobs. I'm no economist, but I assume that cuts in spending - while certainly necessary in the long run - will actually reduce jobs in the near term, not increase them. At a time when there are already five job seekers for every open position, it seems like adding more unemployed people to the mix adds up to fuzzy math, at best. Still, the popular sentiment seems to be, "So be it."

In a recent column entitled "The Forgotten Millions," Paul Krugman of the New York Times spelled it out pretty plainly: "More than three years after we entered the worst economic slump since the 1930s, a strange and disturbing thing has happened to our political discourse: Washington has lost interest in the unemployed."

That column made me think - Have the politicians really lost interest, or is it more precise to say they've given up? Or, has this economic downturn simply worn them out? And, is it really the rest of us who have forgotten and/or given up?

Moreover, 2011 - like 2010 before it - was supposed to be a year of rebounding fortunes, at least according to some economists. And it still might well prove to be. In an earlier blog post, I reported that McGraw-Hill Construction - publisher of ENR Southeast - was predicting upbeat business prospects for Southeast contractors in three of the region's four states, with only North Carolina contracts projected to decline during the year.

But January sure didn't bring good news. Instead, only South Carolina saw an improvement in the value of new construction contracts, while the value of Florida's fell 50%, Georgia contracts dropped 19% and North Carolina activity fell 22%. Then there's the latest news that housing sales and, importantly, prices fell yet again in February, with prices nearing a nine-year low. (A recent special report from sister McGraw-Hill Construction publication Architectural Record, entitled "Will We Ever Get Out of This Hole?," is interesting reading. Be sure to check out the reader comments, which number about 90.)

All of this makes it kind of hard to see an end to this mess, and the timely return of so many lost workers to the Southeast's construction industry.

If only there was a need for an investment in the nation's infrastructure or buildings that could put people to work....