Jobs in Construction: Building Trades Opportunities in South-Central Los Angeles
By: DANIEL FLAMING AND JO-SHING YANG, ECONOMIC ROUNDTABLE
This report assesses the viability increasing access of South-Central Los Angeles residents, particularly young, Black residents, to employment opportunities in building trades and the construction industry. Information from this analysis indicates that African American residents of South-Central Los Angeles do not participate equally in employment opportunities in the construction industry.
The most important body of data used is reports of local Employment Development Department (EDD) offices on the occupations and characteristics of workers seeking jobs, the occupations for which employers are recruiting employees, and the number of these "job orders" that are filled by job seekers. This data captures the actual interface of labor market transactions between the supply of active job seekers and the demand of employers in South-Central, making it possible to identify the scarcity or over-abundance of either workers or jobs in specific construction occupations, and to compare this with the pattern of County-wide labor market transactions in these same occupations.
Current Labor Exchange Activities
Employment Development Department data reveals a bleak labor-market picture for active construction job applicants in South-Central. Active job seekers in the construction trades in South-Central Los Angeles faced more obstacles in searching for a job than job applicants in other occupations and in areas elsewhere in Los Angeles County. These applicants are disadvantaged because:
1. There are generally fewer job orders received from the construction trades in South-Central than in the balance of the County.
2. South-Central labor exchanges, on average, achieve a lower percentage of placements in what few construction job openings are received than the rest of the County.
Among construction job seekers, 38 job candidates in South-Central and 15 applicants in the County remained jobless for every construction job order filled. In contrast, among job seekers in all occupations, for every job order filled about 3 South-Central and 2 County job seekers in all occupations remained unemployed.
The ineffectiveness of the public labor exchange in helping South-Central construction workers get jobs is an anomaly in the overall pattern of labor market activity. In examining data for all occupations, South Central EDD offices were actually more efficient overall in filling job orders for all occupations than the County labor exchanges overall.
Construction Industry in the Context of the Regional Economy
For most of the period from 1972 through 1993, the construction industry has accounted for a relatively steady share of Los Angeles County jobs, accounting for 3% to 3´% of total employment. The exceptions have been two intervals beginning a decade apart, the first in 1982 and the second in 1992, when downturns in the economy have reduced construction employment below 3% of all jobs in the region.
Construction has been either Los Angeles County's fastest growing or fastest declining industry in fifteen of the past twenty-one years. The boom-and-bust nature of construction activity means that workers who gain a foothold in the industry when it is growing are plunged into intense competition for a declining number of jobs when the downturn hits. During three business cycles, from the peak employment period of 1974 through the current downturn in 1993, the swings in construction employment were far greater than those of the overall regional economy.
Construction workers have an especially great need for mediating institutions such as labor organizations which provide linkages with new construction projects and employers who need workers. Given that the intervals of rapid job loss have been roughly equal to the periods of rapid job growth, building trades workers who must rely on rising economic tides for a job opening may well find themselves out of work half the time.
Summary of Occupational Descriptions and Projections
In terms of the benefits for workers in the form of pay, unionization, working conditions, and linkages to public construction activity, the fifteen occupational groups described in this report can be divided into three categories: desirable, adequate, and marginal.
Desirable occupations include:
- Plumbers and Pipefitters
- Sheet Metal Workers
- Structural and Reinforcing Ironworkers
Adequate occupations include:
- Bricklayers and Stone Masons
- Carpet Installers
- Concrete Masons and Terrazzo Workers
- Tile Setters
Marginal occupations include:
- Drywall Workers and Lathers
- Insulation Workers
- Painters and Paperhangers
Conclusions and Recommendations
Based on the information and analysis developed for this report, our conclusions and recommendations are:
1. There is a critical need to improve employment linkages between job seekers in South-Central Los Angeles, particularly African American job seekers, and the construction industry. The public labor exchange is much less effective in meeting this need for building trades workers than for other occupational areas. As a consequence, construction workers in South-Central have access to fewer construction job openings than workers in the balance of the County, and are less successful in competing for what limited openings become available than workers in other occupational or geographic areas.
2. Employment data shows the same percentage of construction workers in South-Central as elsewhere in the County, but a disproportionately small share of jobs offered through the public labor exchange going to these workers. Overall, the data suggests that building trades workers in South-Central Los Angeles are more tenuously connected to employment (last hired, first fired), more concentrated in lower paying occupations, and less represented in unionized employment than the overall construction work force in Los Angeles County. It appears that there already is a surplus of South-Central workers competing for low-pay, low-skill, high-turnover construction jobs. There is an important need to create institutional opportunities that will improve the quality of jobs for South-Central construction workers.
3. Pay levels for unionized construction workers are much higher than for nonunion workers. In developing programs to improve access for South-Central workers to construction jobs it would be desirable to work together with unions, where this is possible.
4. South-Central Los Angeles has a large supply of construction workers in some occupational areas. In developing training programs, it would desirable to consider whether there is a need to provide upgrade training for workers already in occupational areas such as Brick Masons before adding to the labor supply by training youth for occupations in which there is already strong competition for jobs.
5. Construction jobs vary greatly in the quality of opportunity that they offer workers. Training programs should make optimal matches between workers and career opportunities. Construction jobs described as "marginal" in this report have value as employment opportunities of last resort. Construction jobs which require formal training can offer good careers for youth with the interest and ability to complete three to five years of apprentice training.
6. A strategy of using public construction projects to open employment opportunities for South-Central residents might be most successful if to linked transportation infrastructure projects. These projects account for most public construction expenditures and appear likely to experience growth during the coming decade. These kinds of projects could utilize workers who are skilled as Electricians, Plumbers and Pipefitters, Structural and Reinforcing Ironworkers, Bricklayers, and Concrete Masons.
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