TOPEKA — Construction employment in Kansas fell 3,400 during the past year to plunge the state to 49th in the nation, while all four neighboring states experienced growth in that sector by adding a combined 20,000 construction jobs to the economy, a federal report showed Saturday.
Employment in Kansas’ construction industry since May 2015 slipped 5.6 percent, according to analysis of a June report from the U.S. Department of Labor. The state’s percentage decline was surpassed only by hefty rollbacks in West Virginia and North Dakota.
The No. 1 state in the latest analysis was Hawaii, which added 6,700 construction jobs and recorded 19.7-percent growth. Iowa was second in updated national rankings, expanding construction hiring 13.4 percent and forming 10,400 jobs in the one-year period.
By December, the Kansas Department of Transportation had announced delay of $300 million in T-Works highway projects to help lawmakers deal with budget deficits. Approximately $50 million of that contraction was later financed, KDOT officials said.
In response to another state revenue shortfall, Brownback in April delayed for up to three years authorization of 25 large highway construction projects valued at $550 million. At the GOP governor’s direction, KDOT subsequently made one exception by earmarking $25 million to upgrade a portion of U.S. Highway 69 in the southeast Kansas district of Sen. Jake LaTurner, R-Pittsburg, and vowed to sign contracts for the project before the November election.
Bob Totten, executive vice president of the Kansas Contractors Association, said diminished state spending on bridge and road work was a factor in Kansas’ low ranking on construction employment.
“The jobs we would have had in transportation in Kansas have gone somewhere else,” he said. “Each month we are seeing construction jobs drop at an embarrassing rate.”
Among Kansas’ neighbors, No. 6 Oklahoma added 6,100 construction jobs in the past year for a 7.9-percent expansion. Colorado registered a 7.1-percent gain with 10,500 new jobs and ranked ninth. Nebraska and Missouri reported at least 1,800 construction jobs were added in the year. No. 23 Nebraska grew by 3.6 percent, while 35th Missouri increased 1.7 percent.
Brownback administration officials have stressed softness in state revenue reflected problems in the agriculture and energy portions of the state’s economy. Prices of farm commodities and for crude oil tamped down tax collections, state officials said. Decline in construction employment hasn’t been featured in political explanations of shortfalls to this point.
In May, the overall Kansas unemployment rate fell to 3.7 percent. State Department of Labor Secretary Lana Gordon said it was the lowest jobless figure for Kansas in more than 15 years. However, nonfarm employment in the state has fallen 0.1 percent, or by 700 jobs, since May 2015.
Totten, who represents 235 companies engaged in heavy construction, said the state’s economic interests demanded reversal in the government’s approach to infrastructure investment.
“Unless this cycle ends and our leaders realize the importance of safe roads and bridges, our state will continue to suffer,” Totten said. “These Department of Labor statistics prove that cuts to the road and bridge funding is having a deliberate effect on our state’s ability to thrive and prosper.”
Overall, 11 states and the District of Columbia lost construction jobs in the May-to-May period. Losses in Delaware, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Alabama were below 2 percent, while Maine, Montana and the District of Columbia had drop-offs between 2 percent and 3 percent.
Construction job reductions in Alaska, Wyoming and Kansas were in the 5-percent range, followed by declines of 8 percent in West Virginia and 10.5 percent in North Dakota.