Construction employment in D.C. reaches highest level since 1990


John Krsul welds on a steel beamat the CityCenterDC complex in downtown Washington. (Matt McClain/THE WASHINGTON POST)
September 30, 2012

Employment levels for construction workers in the District reached a 22-year high in August, an increase that economists say was triggered by the city’s strong population growth and demand for new buildings from both the public and private sectors.

Some 14,300 people held construction jobs in Washington that month, a 14 percent jump from the same month last year, according to an analysis conducted by the Associated General Contractors of America.

“Construction has been a relative bright spot” for the District in the wake of the recession, said James Bohnaker, associate economist with Moody’s Analytics.

The city’s surge in population has been a boon for builders of multi-family residences. Many of these new residents are seeking to live in apartments, a trend that economists say could be a result of a desire for shorter commute times, a preference for an urban lifestyle, or even trepidation about buying a home in an uncertain economy.

And in the commercial sector, several major projects have led to an uptick jobs in this industry, including CityCenterDC, the $950 million project at the site of the old convention center; Marriott’s new convention center hotel on Ninth Street NW; and Wal-Mart’s move to build its first retail outlets in the District.

Government projects, such as the renovation of federal buildings and construction of the 11th Street bridge, have also contributed to recent job growth.

Davis Construction, a Rockville-based firm that does most of its business in the District, said it has hired 47 employees since January.

“It has been a strong year,” said Debbi Carter, a vice president at Davis. Mixed-use residential buildings, primarily ones that will provide rental housing, have been a pillar of the company’s workload in Washington this year.

This growth in construction jobs seen in the District is not shared by the suburbs in Virginia and Maryland, where more of the housing inventory consists of single-family homes. In the Maryland suburbs, there were 3 percent fewer construction jobs this August than last August. In Northern Virginia, there was 1 percent fewer of those positions.

And even in Washington, economists are not optimistic that the boost in construction jobs will last. Stephen S. Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, said that many of the projects have been long-planned, one-off undertakings that aren’t likely to be repeated next year.

The General Service Administration’s plan to consolidate offices and use space more efficiently likely means that construction jobs from public-sector clients will dry up.

“I think the best hope is for continued growth of the multi-family housing,” said Kenneth D. Simonson, chief economist for Associated General Contractors of America.

The construction industry continues to struggle in other regions of the country. The national unemployment rate for these workers was 11.3 percent in August, far higher than the 8.1 percent unemployment rate for all U.S. workers.

Just four metropolitan areas across the nation exceeded the District’s growth in construction jobs in the one-year period between August 2011 and August 2012.

Alex Sanguinetti, general manager of Lofft Construction, said he has been adding jobs at his District-based firm, both at the office and out in the field.

While some of Lofft’s recent work has been in commercial or public-sector construction, it has seen particular strength from residential renovations. These projects are not only in demand in Upper Northwest Washington, but also in neighborhoods such as Petworth and H Street Northeast, Sanguinetti said.

In addition to restorations of private homes, Sanguinetti’s firm has found a niche in renovating embassies.

“That’s a great market, because they’re all in old, huge row houses in Kalorama, the Massachusetts [Avenue] corridor,” Sanguinetti said.

At District-based Donohoe Cos., vice president Neil Stablow said business has not quite returned to pre-recession levels.

But, he added, “the demand is there, and the financing is starting to come back. And so we’re seeing things trending positively.”

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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