April payroll employment falls overall but rises for construction; value put in place slips in March.

The national average on-highway diesel fuel price fell for the 8th straight week, to $1.48 today from a peak of $1.77 on March 10, the Energy Information Administration reported this afternoon. The national average gasoline price also continued its sharp fall, to $1.56 today from a peak of $1.77 on March 17.

The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) reported today that the ISM non-manufacturing business activity index rose in April to 50.7, indicating expansion, after dipping to 47.9 in March. Construction was listed among the industries reporting: faster supplier deliveries than before, highest rates of inventory decrease, but also highest rates of feeling inventories were too high, growth in backlog of orders, and increased use of imports.

The ISM manufacturing index slipped a bit to 45.4% from 46.2% in March, which ISM said Thursday meant that "Economic activity in the manufacturing sector failed to grow in April, while the overall economy grew for the 18th consecutive month."

The Census Bureau reported Friday that new orders for manufactured goods (excluding semiconductor manufacturing) rose by a seasonally adjusted 2.2% in March to their highest level since May 2001. Orders for construction materials and supplies, seasonally adjusted, rose by 1.7% for the month, following decreases of 1.9% in February and 0.5% in January. The year-to-date total is up 2.1% from January-March 2002. Orders for construction machinery rose 2.6% in March following drops of 7% and 10% in February and January. Year-to-date construction machinery orders are down 5.5% from a year ago.

The value of construction put in place fell 1% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $868.5 billion in March, the Census Bureau reported Thursday. For the first three months of 2003, the unadjusted value put in place was 1.4% higher than in the first quarter of 2002. Private residential construction rose by 11% from the first three months of 2002, but public construction turned down, slipping by 0.4%, while private nonresidential construction dropped 12%.

Non-farm payroll employment fell for the third straight month in April, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced Friday. Seasonally adjusted construction employment edged up by 18,000 in April and 19,000 in March after a fall of 45,000 in February. The April total is 12,000 (0.2%) ahead of April 2002. For the past year, industry employment has been flat. Among BLS's three construction subgroups, general building contractor employment was up by 32,000 (2%) from April 2002, reflecting the still-strong market for homebuilding, while special trade contractors added 14,000 jobs (0.3%) over the year. Heavy construction, except building, shed 31,000 jobs (3%) in that time. Taking a longer perspective, BLS Commissioner Kathleen Utgoff pointed out, "Despite modest job growth among residential contractors since the recession began in March 2001, construction employment overall has declined by 225,000."

Average weekly hours in the total private sector, seasonally adjusted, slipped from 34.3 in March to 34 in April, BLS said Friday, while construction hours dropped from 39 to 38. Average hourly earnings in construction rose 2.4% over the past year to $19.14 from $18.70 a year before.

The seasonally adjusted employment cost index for total compensation, the broadest measure of how much employers pay for wages and benefits, rose 1.3% from December to March following an 0.7% increase the previous quarter, BLS reported Tuesday. The increase for wages and salaries climbed to 1% from 0.5%, while benefits costs rose 2.2%, vs. 1.3% in the fourth quarter. The overall index for construction rose 0.8% vs. 1% in the fourth quarter, with the wage portion decelerating to 0.3% from 0.9%. (Benefits costs are not broken out for construction but rose faster than wages and accelerated in the first quarter, based on the difference between the growth rates for total compensation and wages.)

In an April 24 conference, National Assn. of Home Builders Chief Economist David Seiders noted that the skilled-labor crunch and building material prices have both eased for home builders as a result of a substantial dip in nonresidential construction.

Kenneth D. Simonson, author of the DATA DIGest Newsletter, is chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, 333 John Carlyle Street, Suite 200, Alexandria, VA 22314, (703) 837-5313; fax (703) 837-5406; e-mail simonsonk@agc.org; website www.agc.org.