Openings decrease in September; storms, fires have mixed impacts on materials and jobs

            Job openings in construction totaled 196,000, not seasonally adjusted, at the end of September, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported on Tuesday. Openings decreased from the September 2016 level but remained far higher than in any other September total in the 17-year history of the series. The decrease may be a result of deferrals or cancellations of projects affected by Hurricanes Harvey (which hit in late August and affected mainly coastal Texas) and Irma (September, affecting mainly Florida). The industry hired 343,000 employees, the largest September total in six years.

            Impacts on construction have been spotty from the hurricanes (including Maria, which devastated Puerto and the U.S. Virgin Islands in September) and four severe wildfires in California (with more than 8,300 buildings severely damaged or destroyed). On Tuesday investment analyst Thompson Research Group (TRG) reported these comments. From a flooring installer: "No impact now." From three building products distributors: "1/2 inch cdx plywood is in short supply." "The impact of the fires will be felt in the next year to two years. People can't go back to their homes right now due to ash contamination." "More wind damage in Florida, so more uplift for roofing products." From a roofing installer: "We lost about one day due to fires [in California]. Labor has been the worst we've ever seen it." However, some contractors may have found workers as a result of storms. On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal cited a Dallas automobile dealer who said he had lost employees who had left to work in construction. A contact in Charlotte told AGC that he had spoken to a contractor who had hired skilled construction workers who had relocated there from Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. Readers are invited to send information on hurricane and fire-related impacts on construction projects, materials and labor to simonsonk@agc.org.

            In its monthly survey of building products companies, TRG also found in regard to steel studs and coils, "In October, 40%reported 'down' pricing, while ~20% reported 'flat' pricing. Current hot-rolled coil pricing is 1.5% lower than last year's peak in late June/early July. [Two leading wallboard producers reported year-over-year price decreases of 2% and 3.3%, with] January 2018 price increases out in the market for a range of 15%-18%, depending upon manufacturer." Distributor New South Construction Supply reported on October 30, "Unlike August and September, few manufacturers of construction products we distribute increased prices in October; however, several announced future price increases....Unlike most years some manufacturers of construction chemical will increase prices in November and December, instead of in January and February as they usually do, as raw material costs have increase substantially over the past few months....Concrete reinforcing wire mesh prices have been unchanged since the industrywide price increase in September and mills are holding the line on the higher prices. Wire rod manufacturers were unable to get an increase in October and none have announced a price increase for November, so concrete reinforcing wire mesh prices should hold at current levels through November....Domestic rebar prices were unchanged in October after spiking in August and September."

            "The Dodge Momentum Index rose in October, climbing 13.2%...from the revised September reading," Dodge Data & Analytics reported today. The index "is a monthly measure of the first (or initial) report for nonresidential building projects in planning, which have been shown to lead construction spending for nonresidential buildings by a full year. The move higher in October nearly reversed the erosion of the past four months (including September's 7.9% decline), with October posting healthy gains in both sectors. From September to October the commercial portion of the Momentum Index advanced 16.8%, while the institutional portion grew 8.3%. On a year-over-year basis, the Momentum Index is now 6.1% higher, with the commercial portion up 5.5% and the institutional portion up 6.9%. October's increase supports the belief that building activity has further room to grow during this cycle. While month-to-month activity could continue to be volatile, there are enough projects in the pipeline to sustain growth into 2018."

            On Thursday, BLS issued its annual release and detailed tables on employer-reported nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses, including 35 construction subsectors. The overall construction industry had 3.2 total recordable cases per 100 full-time workers, matching the rate for all industries (private plus state and local government). Of the construction cases, 1.3 cases per 100 workers involved days away from work (vs. 1.0 for all industries), 0.6 involved job transfer or restriction but no days away (vs. 0.7 for all industries), and 1.3 were other recordable cases (vs. 1.5 for all industries). Among construction subsectors, total rates ranged from 0.7 for oil and gas pipeline and related structures construction to 7.0 for framing contractors. The release notes, "The 2016 rate of total recordable cases (TRC) fell 0.1 cases per 100...workers to continue a pattern of declines that, apart from 2012, occurred annually since 2004....Four private industry sectors—construction, manufacturing, wholesale trade, and retail trade—experienced statistically significant declines in the TRC rate of occupational injuries and illnesses in 2016." Chart 2 in the release shows that the decrease in the rate has been steeper in construction (from 6.9 in 2003 to 3.2 in 2016) than in the other three sectors or finance and insurance. Of the five sectors, the construction rate was tied with manufacturing for the highest rate as recently as 2009 but was lower than manufacturing and retail trade in 2016.

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