U.S. Construction Labor Productivity Trends, 1970–1998
Construction productivity trends carry immense consequences for the economy as a whole. However, there is little scholarly consensus concerning even the direction of such trends. The main objectives of this paper are to (1) present an approach to studying long-term productivity trends in the U.S. construction industry; and (2) provide a preliminary indication of such trends over the past 25-30 years. Subsequent, extended statistical studies are suggested that may be based on the approach of the selected work presented here. Labor cost and output productivity trends are tracked for tasks that represent different trades and differing levels of technological intensity within the building construction sector. Specific tasks dealt with a range from a zero technology impact task, such as hand trenching, to compaction with a sheepsfoot roller. Means's cost manuals were used to trace the benchmark values for these tasks. These values reflect productivity trends. Unit labor costs in constant dollars and daily output factors were compared over decades for each task. Direct work rate data from 72 projects in Austin, Tex., over the last 25 years were also examined. Increasing the direct work rate usually increases construction productivity. The combined data indicate that productivity has increased in the 1980s and 1990s. Depressed real wages and technological advances appear to be the two biggest reasons for this increase. The data also indicate that management practices were not a leading contributor to construction productivity changes over time. Subsequent studies are required to add weight to these observations and can be based on the approach presented here.