Is the construction job market improving?

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Is the construction job market improving?

By JIM FABER jfaber@islandpacket.com 843-706-8137
Published Monday, September 1, 2008 in The Island Packet  |  606 Words  |  news/local

The job markets in South Carolina and Beaufort County have had a rough summer, particularly for construction workers. But some local and state officials are gradually becoming more optimistic, believing a rebound could be on the horizon.
Statewide unemployment was at 7 percent in July, a full percentage point higher than July 2007.
Unemployment in Beaufort County was at 5.7 percent, the second lowest in the state, as of July. But it also has risen, from 4.6 percent in July 2007.
One of the hardest-hit sectors this summer -- construction -- has seen cuts locally, but not to the extent as other parts of the state, experts said.
From October through June, some 17,500 construction jobs were lost statewide, according to Doug Woodward, an economist with the University of South Carolina's Moore School of Business.
But those cuts have slowed recently. The South Carolina Employment Security Commission reported only 100 construction jobs lost in July, the most recent data.
Building permit requests throughout the state have also risen, by 4.7 percent in June, the first increase in many months, Woodward said.
Both the slowing of job losses and the increase in building permits indicate the industry may have hit bottom and is climbing back, he said.
Ashley Feaster, executive director of the Hilton Head Area Home Builders Association, said she's seen a change in her membership's attitude recently.
"We've had a lot of people who were very down in spirits three months ago become more spirited," she said.
Construction companies have been forced to market better to find work, and some companies that haven't kept up with those changes have been hurt, she said.
"There's been some downsizing, but not massive layoffs," Feaster said.
One local builder believes many construction workers have been feeling the pain of the economic slowdown.
"Everyone has slowed down quite a bit in terms of construction," said Howard Feldman, a partner in Coastal Green Building Solutions in Ridgeland. "My guess is that a lot of people have lost their jobs."
But his company is still busy, working on about five custom homes as well as a "green" community called Bryant Park Cottages on Hilton Head Island.
Other industries that are major employers in Beaufort County include the military, education, health care and tourism, said Ginnie Kozak, planning director for the Lowcountry Council of Governments, a regional governmental agency.
Three of those industries -- the military, education and health care -- aren't likely to lose jobs during the current economic slowdown, Kozak said.
Tourism also has shown strength this year, despite predictions on a national scale that travel would be slow.
But there are other problems with the local employment market. A growing number of people can't find jobs and have been unemployed more than just a few months, Kozak said.
And many of the jobs in the area are low-paying, low-skill service positions, she said.
Woodward, of USC, sees both positives and negatives in the current situation. Despite the massive cuts in construction throughout the state, the number of jobs in South Carolina has actually grown by 0.2 percent so far in 2008, he said.
That's very modest growth, but it isn't a job loss.
Exports of agricultural products and wood have been strong this year, and when those areas are healthy, they produce jobs in supporting fields, Woodward said.
On the down side, inflation is growing faster than wages for most people in the state. If consumers cut back on spending, which makes up 70 percent of the economy, more job losses could follow, Woodward said.