IPA Provides Useful Information about the Construction Industry



  • Job opportunities are expected to be excellent for experienced workers.
  • Workers in construction have relatively high hourly earnings.
  • More than 4 out of 5 establishments in the industry employ fewer than 10 people.
  • Construction has a very large number of self-employed workers.


Houses, apartments, factories, offices, schools, roads and bridges are only some of the products of the construction industry. This industry’s activities include work on new structures as well as additions, alterations and repairs to existing ones.

The construction industry is divided into three major segments. Construction of buildings contractors, or general contractors, build residential, industrial, commercial and other buildings. Heavy and civil engineering construction contractors build sewers, roads, highways, bridges, tunnels and other projects. Specialty trade contractors are engaged in specialized activities such as carpentry, painting, plumbing and electrical work.

Construction usually is done or coordinated by general contractors, who specialize in one type of construction such as residential or commercial building. They take full responsibility for the complete job, except for specified portions of the work that may be omitted from the general contract. Although general contractors may do a portion of the work with their own crews, they often subcontract most of the work to heavy construction or specialty trade contractors.

Specialty trade contractors usually do the work of only one trade, such as painting, carpentry, or electrical work, or of two or more closely related trades, such as plumbing and heating. Beyond fitting their work to that of the other trades, specialty trade contractors have no responsibility for the structure as a whole. They obtain orders for their work from general contractors, architects or property owners. Repair work is almost always done on direct order from owners, occupants, architects or rental agents.


Most employees in this industry work full time and many work more than 40 hours a week. In 2002, about 1 in 5 construction workers worked 45 hours or more a week. Construction workers may sometimes work evenings, weekends and holidays to finish a job or take care of an emergency. Workers in this industry need physical stamina because the work frequently requires prolonged standing, bending, stooping and working in cramped quarters. They also may be required to lift and carry heavy objects. Exposure to weather is common because much of the work is done outside or in partially enclosed structures. Construction workers often work with potentially dangerous tools and equipment amidst a clutter of building materials; some work on temporary scaffolding or at great heights and in bad weather. Consequently, they are more prone to injuries than are workers in other jobs. In 2002, cases of work-related injury and illness were 7.1 per 100 full-time construction workers, which is significantly higher than the 5.3 rate for the entire private sector. Workers who do roofing, siding and sheet metal work experienced the highest injury rates. In response, employers increasingly emphasize safe working conditions and work habits that reduce the risk of injuries. To avoid injury, employees wear safety clothing, such as gloves and hardhats, and sometimes devices to protect their eyes, mouth or hearing.


Construction, with 6.7 million wage and salary jobs and 1.6 million self-employed and unpaid family non-government jobs in 2002, was one of the Nation’s largest industries.

Almost 2 out of 3 wage and salary jobs were with specialty trade contractors, primarily plumbing, electrical and masonry contractors. Around 1 out of 4 jobs were with building contractors, mostly in residential and nonresidential construction. The rest were with heavy and civil engineering construction contractors. Employment in this industry is distributed geographically in much the same way as the Nation’s population; the concentration of employment is generally in industrialized and heavily populated areas.

There were about 792,000 construction companies in the United States in 2002: 237,000 were building construction contractors; 60,000 were heavy and civil engineering construction or highway contractors; and 496,000 were specialty trade contractors. Most of these establishments tend to be small, the majority employing fewer than 10 workers. About 4 out of 5 workers are employed by small contractors.

Construction offers more opportunities than most other industries for individuals who want to own and run their own business. The 1.6 million self-employed and unpaid family workers in 2002 performed work directly for property owners or acted as contractors on small jobs, such as additions, remodeling and maintenance projects. The rate of self- employment varies greatly by individual occupation in the construction trades.

Most of the workers in construction are skilled craftsworkers or laborers, helpers and apprentices who assist the more skilled workers. Most construction workers generally are classified as either structural, finishing or mechanical workers. Structural workers include carpenters; construction equipment operators; brickmasons, blockmasons, and stonemasons; cement masons and concrete finishers; and structural and reinforcing iron and metal workers.

Finishing workers include carpenters; drywall installers, ceiling tile installers and tapers; plasterers and stucco masons; segmental pavers; terrazzo workers; painters and paperhangers; glaziers; roofers; carpet, floor, and tile installers and finishers; and insulation workers.

Mechanical workers include pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters; electricians; sheet metal workers; and heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers. Other workers, called hazardous materials removal workers remove hazardous materials such as asbestos, lead, and radioactive and nuclear materials from buildings, facilities and the environment to prevent further contamination of natural resources and to promote public health and safety.

The greatest numbers of construction craftsworkers are carpenters; electricians; pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters; construction equipment operators; painters and paperhangers; sheet metal workers; drywall installers, ceiling tile installers and tapers; cement masons, concrete finishers, segmental pavers, and terrazzo workers; brickmasons, blockmasons and stonemasons; and roofers.

The construction industry employs nearly all of the workers in some construction craft occupations—such as plasterers and stucco masons; roofers; structural and reinforcing iron and metal workers; and drywall installers, ceiling tile installers and tapers. In other construction craft occupations—for example, electricians; painters and paperhangers; plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters; and carpet floor, and tile installers and finishers—large numbers also work in other industries . Other industries employing large numbers of construction workers include transportation equipment manufacturing; transportation, communication and utilities; real estate; wholesale and retail trade; educational services; and State and local government.

Many persons enter the construction crafts through apprenticeship programs. These programs offer on-the-job training under the close supervision of an experienced craftworker, and formal classroom instruction. Depending on the trade, apprentices learn a variety of skills, ranging from laying brick to putting together steel beams.

Many persons advance to construction craft occupations from related, less skilled jobs as helpers or laborers. They acquire skills while they work. They are first hired as laborers or helpers, performing a variety of unskilled tasks and providing much of the routine physical labor needed in construction. They erect and dismantle scaffolding, clean up debris, help unload and carry materials and machinery and operate simple equipment. They work with experienced craftworkers, learning the basic skills of a particular craft. After acquiring experience and skill in various phases of the craft, they may become skilled craftworkers.

To develop their skills further after training, construction craftworkers may work on many different projects, such as housing developments, office and industrial buildings, or highways, bridges and dams. Flexibility and a willingness to adopt new techniques, as well as the ability to get along with people, are essential for advancement. Those who are skilled in all facets of the trade and who show good leadership qualities may be promoted to supervisor. As supervisors, they oversee craftworkers and helpers and ensure that work is done well. They plan the job and solve problems as they arise. Those with good organizational skills and exceptional supervisory ability may advance to superintendent. Superintendents are responsible for getting a project completed on schedule by working with the architect’s plans, making sure materials are delivered on time, assigning work, overseeing craft supervisors and ensuring that every phase of the project is completed properly and expeditiously. They also resolve problems and see to it that work proceeds without interruptions. Superintendents may advance to large projects as general managers and top executives. Some go into business for themselves as contractors.


Persons may enter most jobs in the construction industry without any formal classroom training after high school. Most skilled craft jobs require proficiency in reading and mathematics. Safety training is required for most jobs. Some laborers can learn their job in a few days, but the skills required for many jobs are substantial; they can be learned through apprenticeships or other employer-provided training programs. Skilled workers such as carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers and other construction trade specialists need either several years of informal on-the-job experience or apprenticeship training. Workers pick up skills by working with more experienced workers and through instruction provided by their employers. As they demonstrate their ability to perform tasks they are assigned, they move to progressively more challenging work. As they broaden their skills, they are allowed to work more independently, and responsibilities and earnings increase. They may qualify for jobs in related, more highly skilled, occupations. For example, after several years of experience, painters’ helpers may become skilled painters.

Apprenticeships administered by local employers, trade associations and trade unions provide the most thorough training. Apprenticeships usually last between 3 and 5 years and consist of on-the-job training and 144 hours or more of related classroom instruction each year. However, a number of apprenticeship programs are now using competency standards in place of time requirements, making it possible to complete a program in a shorter time. Those who enroll in apprenticeship programs usually are least 18 years old and in good physical condition.

Persons can enter the construction industry with a variety of educational backgrounds. Those entering construction right out of high school start as laborers, helpers or apprentices. Those who enter construction from technical or vocational schools also may go through apprenticeship training; however, they progress at a somewhat faster pace because they already have had courses such as mathematics, mechanical drawing and woodworking. Skilled craftworkers may advance to supervisor or superintendent positions, or may transfer to jobs such as construction building inspector, purchasing agent, sales representative for building supply companies, contractor, or technical or vocational school instructor. In order to advance to a management position, additional education and training is recommended.

Managerial personnel usually have a college degree or considerable experience in their specialty. Individuals who enter construction with college degrees usually start as management trainees or construction managers’ assistants. Those who receive degrees in construction science often start as field engineers, schedulers or cost estimators. College graduates may advance to positions such as assistant manager, construction manager, general superintendent, cost estimator, construction building inspector, general manager or top executive, contractor or consultant. Although a college education is not always required, administrative jobs usually are filled by people with degrees in business administration, finance, accounting or similar fields.

Opportunities for workers to form their own firms are better in construction than in many other industries. Construction workers need only a moderate financial investment to become contractors and they can run their businesses from their homes, hiring additional construction workers only as needed for specific projects. The contract construction field, however, is very competitive, and the rate of business failure is high. Taking courses in business helps to improve the likelihood of success.


Earnings in construction are significantly higher than the average for all industries. In 2002, production or non-supervisory workers in construction averaged $18.51 an hour, or about $712 a week. Average earnings of workers in the specialty trade contractors segment were somewhat higher than those of workers employed by building or heavy and civil engineering construction contractors.

Earnings of workers in the construction industry vary by the education and experience of the worker, type of work, the size and nature of the construction project, geographic location and economic conditions. Earnings of construction trade workers are often affected by poor weather. Heavy rain may slow or even stop work on a construction project. Traditionally, winter is the slack period for construction activity, especially in colder parts of the country, but there is a trend toward more year- round construction even in colder areas. Because construction trades are dependent on one another—especially on large projects— work delays in one trade delay or stop work in another.

About 19 percent of construction trades workers were union members or covered by union contracts, compared with about 15 percent of workers throughout private industry. Many different unions represent the various construction trades and form joint apprenticeship committees with local employers to supervise apprenticeship programs.


Job opportunities are expected to be excellent in the construction industry, especially for workers with training and experience in construction occupations, due largely to the numerous openings arising each year as experienced construction workers leave their jobs. Further, many potential workers may prefer work that is less strenuous and has more comfortable working conditions. The continued shortage of adequate training programs also will contribute to the favorable job market.

The number of wage and salary jobs in the construction industry is expected to grow about 15 percent through the year 2012, compared with the 16 percent projected for all industries combined. Employment in this industry depends primarily on the level of construction and remodeling activity. New construction is usually cut back during periods when the economy is not expanding, and the number of job openings in construction fluctuates greatly from year to year. Employment growth in the various segments of the construction industry varies somewhat, depending on the demand for various types of construction. At times, there may be a high demand for new office space or housing, for example, but lower demand for road construction or remodeling work.

Although household growth may slow slightly over the coming decade, the demand for residential construction is expected to continue to grow. The demand for larger homes with more amenities, as well as for second homes, will continue to rise, especially as the baby boomers reach their peak earning years and can afford to spend more on housing. Some older, more affluent baby boomers will want townhouses and condominiums in conveniently located suburban and urban settings. At the same time, as the number of immigrants increases and as the "echo boomers" (the children of the baby boomers) start to replace the smaller "baby bust" generation in the young adult age groups, the demand for manufactured housing, starter homes, and rental apartments also is expected to increase.

Employment is expected to grow in nonresidential construction because replacement of many industrial plants has been delayed for years, and a large number of structures will have to be replaced or remodeled. Construction of nursing homes, convalescent homes, and other extended care institutions also will increase due to the aging of the population, the growing use of high-technology medical treatment facilities, and the need for more drug treatment clinics. Construction of schools will increase to accommodate the children of the baby boom generation.

Employment in heavy and civil engineering construction is projected to increase due to growth in highway, bridge and street construction, as well as in maintenance and repairs to prevent further deterioration of the Nation’s highways and bridges.

Employment in specialty trades contracting, the largest segment of the industry, should grow as demand for contractors in building and heavy construction rises and as more workers are needed to repair and remodel existing homes. Home improvement and repair construction is expected to continue to grow faster than new home construction. Remodeling should be the fastest growing sector of the housing industry because of a growing stock of old residential and nonresidential buildings. Many "starter" units will be remodeled to appeal to more affluent, space- and amenity- hungry buyers. Also, some of the demand from the trade-up market may result in remodeling and additions rather than the construction of new, larger homes. Remodeling tends to be more labor-intensive than new construction.

Employment growth will differ among various occupations in the construction industry. Employment of construction managers is expected to grow as a result of advances in building materials and construction methods, as well as a proliferation of laws dealing with building construction, worker safety, and environmental issues. Construction managers who have a bachelor’s degree in construction science with an emphasis on construction management, and who acquire work experience in construction management services firms, should enjoy an especially favorable job outlook. Employment growth of administrative support occupations will be limited by increased office automation.

Although employment in construction trades as a whole is expected to grow about as fast as the industry average, the rate of growth will vary by trade. Employment of cement masons, concrete finishers, segmental pavers and terrazzo workers; electricians; sheet metal workers; and heating, air-conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers should grow faster than the industry average because technological changes are not expected to offset increases in employment demand as construction activity grows. On the other hand, employment of construction equipment operators; construction laborers; and boilermakers is expected to grow more slowly than that of the construction industry as a whole because greater use of new equipment will make workers more efficient.

Industry data is republished with permission by the Bureau of Labor Statistics

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