Sort by

Here's One Group of Workers Who Never Recovered from the Crash

David Callahan

Whenever new jobs data is published, as it was today, I take a quick look at the unemployment rate for construction workers. No group of workers got whacked harder by the housing crash and financial crisis, and it's only when these people are back on their feet can we say that the worst is over.

Well, they're not anywhere close to being back on their feet. The unemployment rate for construction workers last month was 12.8 percent, the highest rate for any group of workers. That's basically a Depression-level rate of joblessness, and this quiet crisis been grinding on for six years. The only good news is that the rate is lower than it was a year ago, when over 15 percent of construction workers were unemployed. 
Why the focus on construction workers? Because making a living by building stuff is an iconic path to some version of the American Dream, a path that is open to anyone who is good with their hands and has a capacity for hard work. What's more, construction has long been a mainstay of employment for young men without much education, enabling them to provide for families and have a sense of dignity. Bad things happen in society when young men find it hard to make a living or have a strong sense of self worth. 
Also, while the stereotype of a construction worker is a white guy with a hardhat, this field is now extremely diverse, and Latino men in particular found lots of opportunity in construction before the crash. So hard times for construction workers needs to be understood as hard times for young men of color, who were the most at-risk group of American even before the economy cratered. 
But what's really notable to me about the construction unemployment crisis is how needless it is. These are people who could easily be put to work rebuilding America's crumbling infrastructure and dilapidated schools, and instead of this protected era of despair, we could be offering dignity and income to people while leaving behind a legacy of tangible improvements to society. Just look around at how many public structures built in the 1930s by the WPA and other programs are still with us. 
There's lots reasons this big infrastructure investment hasn't happened, starting with the Tea Party. But one important reason lies buried in the same jobs report that shows catastrophe for construction workers: the unemployment rate for college educated professionals is just over 3 percent, which is more than full employment. There are no hard times for the professional class that dominates the worlds the world of media, politics, and entertainment. Unemployment is not on the elite agenda because elites, and the friends and kids, are not experiencing this problem.