Democrats and Republicans seem to disagree about almost everything with one exception: the need to repair and upgrade America’s shaky infrastructure.
Although it’s difficult to envision big legislation passing in an election year, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she intends to try. One thing working in favor of a large infrastructure bill is that both parties have grown increasingly comfortable with running huge budget deficits. But that doesn’t answer a pressing new issue: In the tightening and evolving U.S. jobs market, it might be hard to find enough construction workers. In other words, if money was an obstacle before, now it might be a labor shortage.
Big numbers have been tossed around, with some proposals for as much as $2 trillion in infrastructure spending. President Donald Trump has in the past proposed a $1 trillion plan. But that would include only $200 billion of public money, with the hope that it would catalyze hundreds of billions of dollars in additional private spending. Democratic presidential candidates, such as Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg, also have proposed spending $1 trillion on projects like roads, bridges and rural broadband expansion, though the money would come from the federal government.
For the sake of the discussion, let’s assume $1 trillion in direct spending by the federal government, or $100 billion a year for a decade. How many construction workers would that entail?
There are a couple of ways to go about doing this. Looking at the total amount the U.S. spends on construction every year and dividing that by the number of construction workers gets you to the amount of spending per construction worker. The U.S. spends a little more than $1.3 trillion a year on construction and there are 7.5 million construction workers, for about $175,000 per worker. Dividing $100 billion in new annual infrastructure spending by that $175,000 implies that 570,000 construction workers would be needed.
Another way is to look at what percentage of construction spending is allocated for labor. Although it varies based on the type of project, a rough estimate is that 30% of construction costs are for labor. That works out to about $30 billion in annual labor costs. Construction workers average about $31 an hour in wages and work an average of a 39 hours a week, 52 weeks in a year. That math gets you to 477,000 construction workers. Using either method, the need for 500,000 additional workers seems reasonable.
Finding that many new construction workers in a year would be difficult. At the peak of the housing boom in early 2006, the U.S. added 500,000 construction jobs in the previous 12 months. Despite reports for years of a shortage of laborers, the industry has managed to grow by about 200,000 jobs per year during the past several years. Part of that has meant stepped-up efforts to recruit and train new workers.
But a big part has also meant higher pay. Growth in the employment-cost index for construction workers, which strips out the influence of employment shifts among occupations and industries, has climbed during the past decade. After a big increase in the third quarter of 2019, compensation growth for construction workers was up 3.5% over the prior year, the highest growth rate since the severe recession and not far from the 4% growth rates achieved at the height of the housing boom. Continuing increases in compensation will likely draw even more workers into the industry. The question is how fast compensation would have to rise to double or triple annual growth in the number of construction workers at a time when the job market is tightening and the housing industry is competing for labor.
Demographic changes also are working against the industry. In the past 10 years, the labor force has increased by 11.5 million workers, although a breakdown by education shows that there’s been an increase of 14 million workers with a college degree. That means that the number of workers without a college degree, and thus people more likely to be drawn to construction, is shrinking.
The labor force is aging as well, with the number of workers older than 55 increasing by 9.3 million. It’s hard to imagine there are large numbers of 60-year-olds who aren’t already in construction looking to join the industry. The demographics of immigration have also changed since the housing boom, with immigrants increasingly likely to be Asians with college degrees rather than low-skill workers from Latin America. Finally, construction remains an industry dominated by men, with only 13% of workers being women. Barring a major shift there we’re talking primarily about drawing men into construction.
Keeping an eye on the construction-labor market is important should Congress look for a way to get an infrastructure deal done. It might take 5% or 6% wage growth to get all the necessary workers. That would be good news for workers, but it could mean crowding out the private sector, higher inflation and a less ambitious infrastructure plan than anticipated.
Bloomberg Opinion columnist Conor Sen is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.