Carpentry work crashing down
Saturday, December 18, 2010
IN LAS VEGAS Every day in this desert city, the carpenters climb into their pickups and vans, resumes stacked on the passenger seats, driving first to the union hall, then in circles from one chain-linked construction site to another, asking for work.
For a year or more, it has been the same.
If they keep pursuing work as carpenters, in fact, many of them may never find a job.
In past recessions, it has been an article of faith that as the economy revives, the work will return. But after the profound recession that began in December 2007, jobs in some industries aren't coming back.
This creates what economists call "structural unemployment," the result of a mismatch between the skills of the workforce and those needed by employers. It is feared because it causes longer unemployment spells as workers struggle to transition from one trade to another.
In few occupations is its mark clearer than among carpenters. In May 2006, about 1 million people were employed as carpenters, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By last year, that number had shrunk to less than 750,000. Economists predict it is unlikely to climb back to those levels for years.
To get a closer look at the phenomena, The Washington Post tracked down 31 carpenters who had worked on one of the biggest projects in Las Vegas, a city that was swept up in the speculative building frenzy and now has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.
Today, at least 22 of the 31 are unemployed, many of them for a year.
Five have lost their houses because of foreclosure or because they were unable to pay the rent. Three others are living with their parents or in-laws. Many of the rest, still slipping financially, fear they are headed in the same direction.
The workers keep seeking carpentry jobs because that is what they know. They've had apprenticeships, training and experience in the field. They've built high-rises, bridges and power plants. And the union wage is $37 an hour, so when overtime flows, they can make good incomes.
Construction workers are used to ups and downs, but this time is different, and the carpenters, often bluff and profane, speak in faltering voices when asked about their prospects.