CHEYENNE — Construction employment in Wyoming led the nation this summer while the national economy remained fragile, according to the chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America.
Although Wyoming is running counter to the national lag in construction of houses and schools, the state is in the same leaky boat as other states when it comes to highway construction, given the bleak prospects for federal money after 2015.
In July, Wyoming construction employment was up 17 percent compared to July 2012. The national increase was 3 percent.
In August, construction employment in the state was up 12.8 percent over the same month in 2012. Notably, the increase was 3 percent in Casper and Cheyenne.
Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, told a luncheon meeting of the Wyoming Associated General Contractors on Wednesday that the economy has improved but not steadily or uniformly across the country.
Wyoming has the longest record of construction job gains until the 2008 stock market collapse and rebounded well, he said.
The construction unemployment rate dropped dramatically in the state during the past three years. Many construction workers left the field during the recession, resulting in a current shortage.
“Because you’ve always been a boom-and-bust state, it’s very hard to hang on to young people and to skilled and experienced workers,” Simonson said. “Also, you’ve been adding construction workers so rapidly, it’s probably difficult to find people with skills.”
The challenge for contractors will be to recruit novice and skilled workers with signing bonuses and overtime pay to entice them back from the oil fields and other employment.
North Dakota has a similar labor problem, he said.
Workers flocked to the oil fields there in recent years, but now, as the economy recovers, the workers may find jobs closer to home.
Meanwhile, construction pay in Wyoming averaged $49,300 in 2012, or 11 percent more than private-sector employees. Construction pay averaged $52,300 per year nationally.
Regarding federal highway funds, Jonathan Downing, the executive director for Associated Contractors of Wyoming, said the most pessimistic expectation is for a decrease from $42 billion to $46 billion a year to about $15 billion after 2015.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation’s $672 million budget for the 2014 fiscal year is based on 46.6 percent in federal funds, or $292 million.
The second-largest source of state money is fuel taxes at 19.2 percent, or
Department officials have said the total is not enough to keep up with highway maintenance, particularly on Interstate 80.