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Housing is healing but where are the construction workers?

December 10, 2012: 11:56 AM ET

Housing is showing solid signs of rebounding, while the government reports that residential construction jobs are shrinking. What gives?

housing_constructionFORTUNE -- After a 5-year slump, the U.S. housing market has turned the corner: Home prices are rising in many parts of the country. And builders are building more homes, as some of the biggest from Toll Brothers to Lennar see profits soar.

But you wouldn't know it by looking at the government's report on jobs. That's a point economist Jed Kolko of Trulia, a residential-property listings website, raised in a report last Friday when the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its monthly report for November.

Even though the economy has steadily added jobs, it doesn't seem to have caught on in the construction industry. This adds to the many confusions over the government's statistics: If builders are building more homes, why aren't we seeing more construction jobs?

In October, housing starts rose 3.6% to an annual pace of 894,000 – the best rate in more than five years and 41.9% higher than a year earlier, the U.S. Commerce Department reported in November. And last week, Toll Brothers (TOL), the largest U.S. luxury homebuilder, reported that revenues jumped 48% during the quarter ending on Oct. 31. Fred Cooper, senior vice president of investor relations at Toll Brothers, says the company built 26% more homes in 2012 compared with the previous year. And in 2013, it expects to build up to 34% or 4,400 more units.

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The employment statistics haven't reflected more building, however. During the past three months, construction jobs overall decreased by an annual rate of 0.4%, while employment overall grew by 1.3%, Kolko says in a report. And jobs, specifically in residential-building construction, contracted at an annualized rate of 7%.

It's often thought that once the housing market turned around, the economy would see it in a big way: After all, each home built generates three full-time jobs and $90,000 in new tax revenue, the National Association of Home Builders, a trade group, estimates.

Since the end of the Great Recession in June 2009, jobs in homebuilding dropped 14.5% from 633,000 to 552,800 in November, according to data from the U.S. Labor Department. During the same period, the unemployment rate declined from 9.5% to 7.7%. Part of the drop reflects an improving economy, but it also comes as more workers feeling uncertain about the economy give up searching for work.

The question is where does the construction industry fit into this picture?

The government may be undercounting construction crews who've taken on relatively new jobs, says Nigel Gault, economist at IHS Global Insight. The monthly jobs report is based on two surveys -- one polling households, which determines the unemployment rate; the other businesses, which calculates the overall number of jobs added and lost.

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Because builders typically hire subcontractors to do everything from painting to plumbing, many of those jobs may not be accounted for since they work for smaller and newer firms. It may take several months before we know exactly how many jobs in construction have been created as the Labor Department catches on. It could also be a shortage of construction workers -- the residual effect of the housing bust when millions left construction amid the economic downturn.

Even then, that might not make that much of a difference. Construction jobs make up only a small part of the employment picture. Of the more than 111 million jobs in the private sector, construction reflects roughly 550,000.

To be sure, a healthy housing market is supposed to stimulate the overall economy because Americans' wealth is closely linked to their homes. It signals to corporate America -- from retailers to manufacturers -- that consumers are more likely to spend. In turn, executives invest and hire more. And so on.

This time, the business cycle may pan out differently. Since the Great Recession was so deep, some have said "housing would have to be on steroids" to give the economy a meaningful boost.

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About This Author
Nin-Hai Tseng
Nin-Hai Tseng
Writer, Fortune

Nin-Hai Tseng covers economics and finance. Before joining Fortune, Tseng was a reporter at The Orlando Sentinel and a public affairs associate at GE. She holds an MPA from Columbia University and a BS in Journalism from the University of Florida. She lives in New York City.

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