The Great Construction Employment Mystery

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


Over at the Atlantic, Matthew O’Brien canvasses the blogosphere’s chart lovers to compile a list of the 34 best economic charts of the year. It’s worth a look at the whole list, but the chart I want to highlight is from Conor Sen. Here it is:

That’s damn peculiar, isn’t it? How is it that housing starts can increase steeply starting in 2011 but construction employment continues to decline? That’s the kind of thing that happens when you build a factory where robots do all the work that people used to do, but nothing like that has happened in the construction industry. Houses today are built pretty much the same way they were a decade ago: with human hands.

So what’s going on? A few months ago the Fiscal Times asked some construction industry experts about this, and they got three answers. First, the increase in housing starts hasn’t been big enough yet. Second, you have to wait a while for all the “finishers” (painters, paper hangers, tile workers, etc.) to be brought on board. Third, most of the work is in apartment buildings, which require fewer workers per unit than houses.

Answer #1 doesn’t hold water. Since the beginning of last year, housing starts have nearly doubled. That’s a lot. Answer #2 is similarly unsatisfying. Housing starts began their upward climb more than 18 months ago. That’s plenty of time to get to the finishing work. So how about Answer #3? Here’s a chart that breaks apart single-unit and multi-unit starts:

Hmmm. Single-unit structures are up by 200,000 and multi-unit starts are also up by about 200,000. The share of multi-unit starts has gone up from about 25 percent to 33 percent, but that’s not much, really. Certainly nowhere near enough to account for a decline in construction jobs. Besides, an apartment building appears to count as a single housing start, and a single apartment building requires more workers than a single house. A rising share of multi-unit starts should accelerate construction employment, not hold it back.

So what’s the answer? My guess is that it’s a statistical artifact of some kind. Something isn’t being counted right here. It’s possible that the construction industry has gotten more efficient in certain ways, but it hasn’t gotten that much more efficient. If housing starts have doubled, then one way or another, construction employment must be up too.

POSTSCRIPT: Anyway, O’Brien missed the real chart of the year. Here it is.

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate