Hard hats up from hard times Building trades surf Puget Sound growth wave

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Welcomed by building tradesmen after a devastating recession, the Puget Sound’s building boom makes pay and jobs plentiful for those who do the essential work. Unemployment leaped to a 2010 high of 27 percent for construction workers across the U.S., according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve’s FRED data tool, and in most of the country remained painfully high during our lethargic recovery. Thanks largely to giant influxes of new residents arriving to work for Amazon, Seattle´s building trades job market got better earlier and more emphatically than those in most of its peer cities. Growth in neighboring communities promptly followed.

Roofers and Waterproofers Local 54 business manager Steve Hurley recalls the gnarly days of recession when 25 percent of his union’s membership left the trade, and notes that cyclical unemployment so chastened his colleagues that many refuse or remain reluctant to return despite “abundant work” and favorable sectoral forecasts for the next five years. For the relatively prompt recovery, he credits Amazon’s thirsty gulps of soil and sky, as well as public sector growth planning prior to the economy’s plunge.

Occupation-specific data provided by the state’s Employment Security Department indicate that respective average salaries for electricians, carpenters, crane tower operators, cement masons, and construction laborers are thousands of dollars higher than in 2009, with most of these averages comfortably above the national median wage. Hurley emphasizes that building trades employers do not compel workers to take on giant, unforgivable student loan debts to qualify for jobs. On the contrary, unions award apprentice tradesmen with regular raises as they mature to professional competency.

The employment effects of our frenetic concrete spring are, in part, determined by two features that make building peculiar among durable goods production industries. While machinery of various kinds is visible and indispensable on construction sites, construction workers have not been as easy to replace with robots as workers in factories making cars or TVs. Further, buildings are not as easy to import from remote fabrication and assembly plants, but are more often built at the same site where they are to be used. To put a building on one’s empty lot in Tacoma, one hires more humans than robots, and those humans build in Tacoma, not in Southeast Asia or South Carolina. The number of buildings built per worker hour has grown more slowly than productivity in durable goods manufacturing during most of the last half-century, per Bureau of Labor Statistics and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development statistics. So if Amazon and its numerous employees want a lot of buildings to live and work in, they need a lot of tradesmen to build them. Employment Security Department regional economist Dr. Paul Turek says, “If demand for offices, warehouses, and apartment buildings is especially strong, wages and employment can rise faster than productivity.” Single-family homebuilding productivity has grown slowest of all construction categories. Reforms to promote backyard cottages, then, in combination with strong demand represented in rising home prices and rents throughout the Puget Sound, can be expected to lace many boots in the city’s leafy residential precincts.

A report from the all-seeing BLS says that U.S. workers in building trades are more than two times likelier to be union members than U.S. non-governmental workers, in general. Tacoma Community College economics professor Robert Larson conjectures that dangerous conditions common on building sites may account for these especially high rates of unionization. A 2014 paper by Loyola University of Chicago’s Paul E. Gabriel finds that union workers enjoy wage premiums over their non-union counterparts of 22 percent among men and 11 percent among women. In August, the Seattle Times reported that a strike by Teamsters-affiliated concrete truck drivers won a four-year contract that includes pay increases larger than a three year, 12 percent raise offer made by management from the $31 drivers earned per hour of work prior to the strike. Roofers 54’s Hurley says that union collective bargaining raises wages for building tradesmen throughout the labor market, as even non-union firms converge toward standards negotiated by unions to dissuade their own workers from defecting to greener paychecks.

Governments are involved in the ongoing boom as clients, commissioning projects like Seattle’s Highway 99 tunnel and light rail extensions, and as ever more generous granters of permission to build. Union spokesmen describe a virtuous cycle wherein development begets development and job security. Union of Operating Engineers communications officer Josh Swanson says his union appreciates population growth’s importance in motivating infrastructure investments that put members’ skills to work, and Roofers 54’s Hurley recounts a recent sequence of rental apartment upzones around new link rail stations that bunched in numerous fresh residents. Commercial developers would build storefronts for grocers and coffee shops, and government would respond to neighborhood enlargement by installing schools and other services. Professor Larson notes that demand for construction labor is tied to sporadic project schedules, and therefore highly variable. He notes that greater backlogs of private project approvals and public infrastructure investments can help to smooth this variability for people “do[ing] difficult, important work who deserve our respect and sympathy.”

As I temper my complaints about garlic prices by fantasizing that my purchase enriches decent, rugged Chinese farmers, I am consoled by learning that bulging rents are hot signs exciting ambitious developers to hire tradesmen at living wages. Hurley says that a journeyman in the building trades can expect to make above $60,000 annually after a four-to-six year paid apprenticeship, which seems about enough to make that mortgage payment.

Dawson Allen lives near Sherman Gulch (a.k.a Mason Gulch) in Tacoma. His dad is a fine remodeler, retired.

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