Florida construction jobs nearly at bottom, economist says

Employment in Florida's construction industry has been bad, but last year it got worse.

The state lost the most construction jobs, 20,700, of any state in the nation, bringing industry jobs in Florida down to 307,800 in January, according to an Associated General Contractors of America report. The peak was 687,200 in June 2006.

"We're probably close to the bottom, if we haven't reached it," said Ken Simonson, the association's chief economist.

The Fort Lauderdale area has been particularly hard-hit, with construction employment sinking to 26,200 — the lowest number recorded in January since 1992, he said. Metro area jobs fell by nearly 60 percent from peak employment of 61,200 in 2007.

With little housing construction, and projects in many school districts, municipalities and state universities stalled due to budget cuts, many contractors have relied on government stimulus-funded public projects in recent years. But those projects are coming to an end.

"By and large, the stimulus money has been spent. Unless another project is coming along, those workers are being laid off," Simonson said.

In Broward County , two large public projects are still employing workers: the $1.8 billion reconstruction of Interstate 595, which involves about 2,400 workers; and the $39.5 million Dixie Highway flyover in Deerfield Beach, which employed 69 workers in February.

The I-595 expansion is a massive, five-year project. But the flyover project, which began in 2009, is expected to be finished by August, Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Barbara Kelleher said.

Both projects have provided jobs to some construction workers who couldn't find other work.

Jose Torres was traveling from state to state seeking construction work before he was hired as concrete foreman on the flyover.

"Thanks to this project, I'm close to my family and I don't have to go out of the state to work," said Torres, 45, who lives in West Palm Beach with his wife and three children.

When the Deerfield project ends, Torres has lined up a three-month job on a Pompano Beach bridge with the same contractor, Cone & Graham.

Area contractors have had to lay off many workers until new projects begin.

Rick Derrer, president of James A. Cummings Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, said his firm once had a steady stream of school construction work, but funding has dried up.

"There are virtually no jobs," he said. As a result, his company has reduced its workforce by 40 percent in recent years. "You can't point to any one sector and say it's on the upswing," Derrer said.

Locally, Cummings continues to work on the Terminal 4 expansion at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. This summer, it is slated to begin construction on a dormitory for Florida Atlantic University.

Simonson said he expects increased remodeling work in Florida as chain stores move into spaces vacated by competitors and investors buy distressed hotels.

Some construction workers are finding jobs building rental apartments — in demand due to a still-struggling housing market.

Furi Development of Boca Raton , which employs 35, is doing storm drain, sanitary and other site preparation work for five rentals from North Miami Beach to Boca Raton , project manager Gary Bal said.

Foreman Franz Favre, 38, who is working on an 800-unit condominium in Delray Beach being built by Furi, said he has had steady work in the past five years. There was a six-month period during the recession, he said, when he was the only one working among his friends in construction.

"They were looking for jobs or changing industries," Favre said. "I've been lucky," he said.

mpounds@tribune.com , 561-243-6650