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NEW YORK CITY-The nation’s construction industry is seeing unemployment figures approach 21% as the economic drought continues to stall new real estate development across the country. Putting the potential magnitude into more local perspective, in New York City, the construction industry employs 123,000 with average payrolls at $14 billion–second only behind health care according to the NY Building Congress.

Nationwide, the job losses are a reflection of steep declines in an industry that saw $548.1 billion in construction starts or 14% fewer than 2008 according to information from McGraw Hill Construction’s “Outlook ’09, Spring Update” report.

Written by Robert Murray, McGraw Hill’s vice president of economic affairs, the report says new construction starts for 2009 are estimated at $463.1 billion, down 15%. Murray and other experts say the decline and job losses would have likely grown worse had the industry not been cushioned by a $130 billion-boost from the American Recovery and Reinvestment now headed towards various construction related projects including infrastructure.

“There is still going to be a decline for the construction industry this year although it would have been much worse without the stimulus bill,” Murray tells GlobeSt.com. He adds that the recession has become very steep. And, although efforts last fall by the US Treasury Department may have prevented a financial collapse, Murray says there has been little improvement in bank lending conditions.

The McGraw-Hill report cites the Federal Reserve’s quarterly survey of bank loan officers from January that reported 80% of loan officers had tightened their loan to value ratios on commercial real estate. The survey showed lending standards had tightened as far back as January ’08.

Noting that it’s too soon to tell whether the March 23 Treasury plan to finance up to $1 trillion in toxic assets would soften those markets, Murray says of the efforts, “it’s keep on trying until you get it right.” Regardless, he says, “the commercial building sector is headed for a lengthy period of retrenchment.”

If government efforts to eventually restore some measure of health to bank lending are successful, “then perhaps we’ll have a bottoming out of commercial building at some point in 2010,” Murray says. “But, essentially nothing the government does right now, in the near term, is going to impact the downward trend for commercial building through this year and for the first half of 2010.”

Economist Dr. Sam Chandan, president of Real Estate Economics, adds that it’s not just that banks which are hesitant to lend for ABC projects; the incentives to start new projects is not as strong now. “Any sense of urgency that a developer needs to bring an office building on line has simply dissipated,” Chandan tells GlobeSt.com.

Citing the World Trade Center and Bank of America Tower projects, Chandan says New York City is in an unusual situation: there’s a lot of progress and long-term development, particularly in the office sector at the moment. “The duration of some of these projects will outlast the recession,” he says.

Both economists applaud aspects of the $130-billion package to fund construction related spending nationwide. Murray notes that given the provisions in the stimulus bill, highway, bridge and other transportation money is rapidly arriving at destinations across the country. Chandan cites stimulus spending on infrastructure and federal building projects–what he calls the commercial-public projects that could provide jobs to thousands of commercial construction workers.

Further, it looks like money may also be heading to a number of environmental projects as well. For example, the General Services Administration said on March 31 that it would spend its $5.5-billion portion of the stimulus money on portfolio improvements that include converting “federal buildings into high performance green buildings,” changing the faces and interiors of courthouses and other federal structures around the nation.

Still, more telling on a national level, as Chandan’s CREE points out in its April 6 Monday Core Report, unemployment in the construction sector is staggering and consistent with ongoing economic weakness. Chandan observes that when looking at the nation’s construction industry as a whole, the correlation between jobs and commercial real estate, commercial building activity appears tight. And it appears, that the early signs of weakening construction employment may have gone unnoticed.

For example, in a 2007 Bureau of Labor Statistics publication titled “Career Guide to Industries,” the government agency predicted that in the construction sector, “the number of wage and salary jobs is expected to grow 10% through the year 2016,” and that “job opportunities are expected to be excellent for experienced workers, particularly certain occupations.”

Chandan explains, “In the beginning of the residential real estate and construction slowdown, we weren’t seeing that many job loss figures. For some sectors within construction, the more significant drop-offs in construction spending have been relatively recent.” Regardless of how the sector arrived here, for now, even in New York City, Chandan says a lot of people on the development end “are taking a wait-and-see approach.”

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