Mixed picture for California construction employment: Unions in SF area report jobs stress but with optimism for year ahead

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rudy gonzalez
Rudy Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Francisco Building Trades Council (Image from SFBTC)

The story about California’s construction employment environment during the COVID-19 pandemic depends largely on where you are in the state. As well, there are indications that unionized trades may be facing some exceptional employment challenges, at least in the San Francisco area.

Statewide data indicates a four per cent employment growth between November 2020 and November 2021, according to government data compiled by the Associated General Contractors (AGC) of America.

Notably, San Francisco reported a 5% gain, while across the Bay, employment declined by 1% in Oakland. The picture for some unionized workers in the Bay area even less encouraging.

“As 2021 draws to a close, a disturbing number of members and apprentices remain out of work and in dire financial straits,” Rudy Gonazlez, secretary-treasurer of the San Francisco Building Trades Council, wrote in the council’s most recent eletter distributed on Jan. 7.

“The persistently high rate of unemployment makes it clear that the impact of COVID-19 is still very much with us, and the toll that this pandemic has taken on our industry across the crafts continues to cut us all deeply,” Gonzalez wrote.

“We have 1,300 workers still on the bench. That impacts everything. For individuals and families, it makes this time of year —one that should be all about togetherness, celebration, and joy — sting. Think of the parents who have to borrow from family or explain to a little one why this holiday will be a little less fun, a little less bright, and a little bit lacking in great gifts and good cheer.”

In his message, he outlined support services available for out-of-work members, and indicated there is more work coming in the new year.

“The bipartisan infrastructure bill was passed, and we’ve already secured a whopping $4.5 billion in federal funds to build out Bay Area mass transit,” he wrote. “That money will allow us to head into Phase 2 of the Transbay Project, which means a lot of very consequential and exciting union work that’ll be covered under the project’s original PLA that was struck back in 2011.”

Here is the data for several California communities:

  • California Statewide Construction 864,000 894,600 30,600 4%
  • Statewide Mining, Logging, and Construction 883,200 913,400 30,200 3%
  • Anaheim-Santa Ana-Irvine Div. Construction 101,800 103,400 1,600 2% 197
  • Bakersfield Construction 14,400 15,800 1,400 10% 25
  • Chico Mining, Logging, and Construction 4,200 4,300 100 2% 197
  • El Centro Mining, Logging, and Construction 1,700 1,700 0 0% 238
  • Fresno Construction 19,000 20,600 1,600 8% 43
  • Hanford-Corcoran Mining, Logging, and Construction 1,000 1,100 100 10% 25
  • Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale Div. Construction 144,300 149,100 4,800 3% 164
  • Madera Mining, Logging, and Construction 2,000 2,100 100 5% 109
  • Merced Mining, Logging, and Construction 2,700 2,700 0 0% 238
  • Modesto Mining, Logging, and Construction 10,000 11,200 1,200 12% 12
  • Napa Mining, Logging, and Construction 3,900 4,200 300 8% 43
  • Oakland-Hayward-Berkeley Div. Construction 71,900 71,000 -900 -1% 288
  • Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura Construction 16,700 16,800 100 1% 222
  • Redding Mining, Logging, and Construction 4,200 4,500 300 7% 62
  • Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario Construction 107,900 109,000 1,100 1% 222
  • Sacramento–Roseville–Arden-Arcade Construction 71,300 78,600 7,300 10% 25
  • Salinas Construction 6,300 6,800 500 8% 43
  • San Diego-Carlsbad Construction 84,500 89,400 4,900 6% 83
  • San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco Construction 41,700 43,600 1,900 5%
  • 109 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara Construction 51,900 50,900 -1,000 -2% 308
  • San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles-Arroyo Grande Mining, Logging, and Construction 8,300 8,900 600 7% 62
  • San Rafael Div. Construction 7,500 8,000 500 7% 62
  • Santa Cruz-Watsonville Mining, Logging, and Construction 4,600 4,600 0 0% 238
  • Santa Maria-Santa Barbara Construction 8,700 8,800 100 1% 222
  • Santa Rosa Construction 16,000 17,900 1,900 12% 12
  • Stockton-Lodi Construction 13,100 14,200 1,100 8% 43
  • Vallejo-Fairfield Construction 10,700 11,500 800 7% 62
  • Visalia-Porterville Mining, Logging, and Construction 6,300 6,700 400 6% 83
  • Yuba City Mining, Logging, and Construction 2,600 2,800 200 8% 43

“It isn’t surprising that construction employment has picked up in most metros over the past year, given the strong economic rebound most of the country has experienced,” said Ken Simonson, the association’s chief economist. “But with record job openings in construction, it’s clear that even more metros should be in the plus column if contractors could find the workers they need and get materials delivered on schedule.”

Construction employment increased in 237 or 66 percent of 358 metro areas over the last 12 months. Sacramento–Roseville–Arden-Arcade, Calif. added the most construction jobs (7,300 jobs, 10 percent), followed by Seattle-Bellevue-Everett, Wash. (7,000 jobs, 7 percent); Chicago-Naperville-Arlington Heights, Ill. (6,500 jobs, 5 percent); Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Mass. (6,200 jobs, 8 percent); and Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, Minn.-Wis. (6,100 jobs, 7 percent). Sioux Falls, S.D. had the highest percentage increase, 19 percent (2,000 jobs). It was followed by three metros with 16 percent increases: Beaumont-Port Arthur, Texas (3,200 jobs); Atlantic City-Hammonton, N.J. (800 jobs) and Waterbury, Conn. (500 jobs).

Construction employment declined from a year earlier in 74 metros and was flat in 47. Nassau County-Suffolk County, N.Y. lost the most jobs (-6,300 or -8 percent), followed by Orange-Rockland-Westchester counties, N.Y. (-3,900 jobs, -9 percent); Calvert-Charles-Prince George’s counties, Md. (-2,700 jobs, -8 percent); Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, Texas (-2,600 jobs, -1 percent) and Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin, Tenn. (-2,600 jobs, -5 percent). The largest percentage declines were in Evansville, Ind.-Ky. (-18 percent, -1,800 jobs); Leominster-Gardner, Mass. (-14 percent, -300 jobs); Anchorage, Alaska (-11 percent, -1,100 jobs); Altoona, Pa. (-10 percent, -300 jobs); and Florence-Muscle Shoals, Ala. (-10 percent, -400 jobs).

Association officials said most construction firms report they are struggling to find enough qualified workers to hire. The officials called on the Biden administration to boost funding for career and technical education to expose more students to construction career opportunities. They noted that federal officials put six dollars into collegiate education and preparation for every dollar they currently invest in career and technical education.

“The gap in federal funding for career and technical education is making it hard for sectors like construction, manufacturing and shipping to find workers interested in those career tracks,” said Stephen E. Sandherr, the association’s chief executive officer. “We are doing everything we can to recruit people into high-paying construction careers but exposing more students to construction skills will certainly help.”

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