No Sign of Labor Shortages in Construction: There are Seven Unemployed Construction Workers for Every Job Opening

The National Association of Home Builders wants you to believe their members face a serious shortage of construction workers, even though construction employment is more than 1.7 million jobs below its pre-recession peak, and unemployed construction workers outnumber job openings in construction by well over seven-to-one. More and more news stories, even in respected sources like NPR and the Wall Street Journal, repeat the builders’ talking points and toss around wage figures with very limited resemblance to reality. (A healthy dose of skepticism is in order when employers complain about high wages. How many tile setters make “$100,000 a year,” which the WSJ story suggests is now the pay for experienced workers in Denver? Not many. The median hourly wage for tile setters in Denver is less than $18 an hour, and nationally, even the 90th percentile wage for tile setters is only $73,510 a year.)

The best way to identify a tight labor market, let alone a market beset by actual labor shortages, is to examine wages. Basically, if wages aren’t rising, the labor market isn’t tightening; if they don’t rise strongly, there are no shortages. As Adam S. Posen and David Blanchflower argue in a recent paper, if wages aren’t rising, it’s a sign of labor slack, weak demand, and a weak economy.

So what’s happening in residential construction? The Wall Street Journal describes a frenzied search for skilled labor, causing pay to soar “to boom-time levels and beyond.” While it’s true that construction wages have risen over the past two years, they’ve risen from such a deep depression that they are still well below the levels of 2009. In fact, the real hourly wages of residential building workers are still 4.2% below 2009, a loss significantly deeper than that of the overall private sector workforce, whose wages are 0.9 percent below 2009.