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WASHINGTON, DC-Department of Labor figures released on Friday continued to illustrate the depths of the recession–but it also provided a glimpse of a possible bottom. The unemployment rate jumped to 9.4% in May–the highest in 25 years. Perhaps more significantly, Labor also reported that the pace of the job losses slowed; US companies only cut 345,000 jobs that month, the smallest increase since September when the economy went into free fall.

The latter news is no doubt reassuring to developers and building owners that have been nervously recalculating vacancy rates with each new report from Labor. Statistics from that same report, though, do not bode well for the construction industry, which has been staggering under the twin forces of economic recession and credit crunch for a year or more. Again, though, as industry executives point this out they also acknowledge bright spots that indicate an eventual recovery, or at least a bottom in the medium term.

“Simply put, the unemployment rate for construction in May was horrendous,” Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, told listeners in a conference call Friday afternoon. “The unemployment rate for construction is a very high 19.2%, while the unemployment rate for the broader economy is 9.1% on a not-seasonally adjusted basis,” he said.

Simonson noted that total construction job losses in May slowed to 59,000, seasonally adjusted, from a rate twice as great in the previous three months. However, he said, most likely this is reflective of home-building finally touching bottom. “Nonresidential employment unfortunately still has a ways to fall. The rate of decline in employment over the past year hit double-digits for the first time for all three nonresidential categories measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.”

As for those construction bright spots, Simonson pointed to power construction, including power plants, wind farms and transmission lines, military base realignment projects, and stimulus-funded work. Stimulus projects in particular, he said, are “puttingmen and women back to work.”

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