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Construction Industry Forecast: Better Than Last Year

January 24, 2011
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More construction firms are planning to hire workers this year than are planning to make layoffs, according to the results of an industry-wide survey released by the Associated General Contractors of America and Navigant.

The survey, conducted as part of the Construction Industry Hiring and Business Outlook, shows the industry may finally be emerging from a severe downturn that has left millions of skilled workers unemployed.

ACG's chief economist was featured in the recent MDM Webcast, now available on DVD, the 2011 Economic Forecast.

“This won't be an easy year for most firms, but it will be better than last year,” said Stephen E. Sandherr, the association's CEO. “If current trends continue, this industry will be in a much better position 12 months from now than it is today.”

Sandherr noted that while 55 percent of firms laid off staff and only 20 percent of firms added employees in 2010, the outlook is more positive for 2011. He said that 27 percent of construction firms report they plan to add staff in 2011 while only 20 percent report plan layoffs. Even more positive, expanding firms plan to hire an average of 23 employees, while contracting firms plan to lay off an average of 16 employees.

Among the 26 states with large-enough survey sample sizes, 45 percent of firms in Iowa plan to hire, more than in any other state. Those firms plan to hire an average of 5 employees each, 21 percent of their workforce. Only five percent of Iowa firms plan layoffs. Meanwhile, 48 percent of firms in Idaho plan layoffs for this year, the highest percentage of any state. Those firms plan to lay off an average of 12 employees each, 11 percent of their workforce. Only 14 percent of Idaho firms plan to hire.

Despite the improving employment outlook, more contractors expect the construction market to shrink in 2011 than expect it to grow. Contractors are most pessimistic about the private office market, where 56 percent expect activity to decline, followed by the retail, warehouse and lodging market, where 52 percent expect less activity.

Contractors are most optimistic about the hospital & higher education market, where 32 percent expect growth and the power market, where 29 percent expect growth. However, even for those markets, 36 percent of contractors expect the hospital & higher education market to shrink and 32 percent expect the power market to contract.

Contractors' low expectations may be driven by the fact most firms expect stimulus-funded construction activity will decline this year. Clear majorities of firms (ranging from 56 percent to 66 percent) expect stimulus spending in every market segment to decline in 2011. Meanwhile, only 30 percent of firms report they plan to perform stimulus-funded work this year, down from the 45 percent that reported performing stimulus-funded work in 2009 or 2010.

“The stimulus propped up many construction jobs during the past two years,” said Ken Simonson, the association's chief economist, noting that firms reported 1 in 5 employees were involved in stimulus-funded projects during the past 12 months. “The stimulus is already becoming a thing of the past in most contractors' minds.”

The dour market outlook appears to be affecting demand for new construction equipment. Only 28 percent of firms report plans to purchase new construction equipment in 2011, down from the 34 percent that reported purchasing equipment last year. Investment levels among the firms planning to buy equipment appear to be heading up, however. Firms report plans to spend nearly $900,000 on average for new equipment, up from average totaling of $671,000 last year.

Bid levels will remain competitive this year. According to the survey results, 29 percent of firms report they plan to lower bid levels in 2011. That follows a year when 74 percent of firms reported lowering bid levels, including seven percent who reported lowering bid levels to the point they lost money performing the work.

The outlook, which the association co-sponsored with services firm Navigant, was based on survey results from nearly 1,300 construction firms from 49 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Contractors from every segment of the industry answered over 30 questions about their hiring, equipment purchasing and business plans. Economists and specialists from the association and the firm analyzed those comments to craft the outlook.

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