Construction laborers provide general assistance to skilled craft workers. They perform a wide variety of tasks to assist with the building of roads and bridges, the construction of commercial and residential buildings, excavations, environmental restorations, and demolitions. Most of the work requires workers to be physically strong and have excellent coordination, manual ability, and dexterity.
Since construction laborers are involved in all segments of the construction industry, they have the choice of specializing in a specific segment of the industry or working on different types of projects. While many focus on one area of construction (i.e. roads and bridges), they are usually involved in every phase of a construction project. Some may help prepare the construction site. Their work may involve clearing trees, operating machinery, or digging trenches. They keep the work area clear of debris, set up barricades to control access if they are needed, set up and tear down scaffolding, and unload, identify, and distribute building materials. Some of the tasks are more dangerous than others. Laborers involved in road, bridge, and highway construction, for example, must dodge traffic as they place cement barricades or traffic cones to keep public vehicles away from the construction.
On construction jobs, laborers may be required to operate machinery such as portable mixers used to mix concrete or spray guns that pump concrete, grout, plaster, or stucco. More skilled laborers may perform specialized tasks, such as operating laser guidance equipment to place pipes and operating air, electric, and pneumatic drills; mechanical hoists; jackhammers; earth tampers; or concrete, mortar, and plaster mixers. They may also use computers to remotely operate robotic pipe cleaners or cutters.
Most construction laborers gain experience and skills by shadowing other workers. They usually start as assistants, and perform tasks such as loading or transporting materials and clearing the work site. As they gain experience they are given the opportunity to work with different materials and learn how to operate various types of construction equipment. There are also a limited number of formal apprenticeship programs available. Apprenticeships last approximately two to four years and combine on-the-job training with 400 hours of classroom training in basic construction skills, such as blueprint reading, tool usage, and safety. Each apprentice completes additional specialized skill training in one of three segments of the construction industry: building construction, heavy and highway construction, or environmental remediation. In order to be accepted into an apprenticeship program, applicants must be at least 18 years old, be a high school graduate or GED holder, and be legally authorized to work in the United States.
Salaries vary depending upon skill set, experience, industry, and geographic location. The median annual wage for construction laborers is $13.71 per hour. The middle 50 percent earn between $10.74 and $18.57 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $8.67 per hour and the highest 10 percent earn more than $25.98. Construction labor apprentices receive roughly 60 percent of the wage earned by experienced workers. The rate increases steadily as they acquire additional skills. The limited duration of construction projects, weather, and the cyclical nature of the construction industry can impact total earnings. For example, recessionary factors may cause a reduction in hours and busy periods may lead to increased earnings due to overtime.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wages in the three industries employing the largest number of construction laborers are as follows:
- Nonresidential building construction $14.95
- Other specialty trade contractors $13.81
- Residential building construction $13.71
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook predicts faster than average growth of approximately 20 percent and good job opportunities for construction laborers over the next 10 years. Growth will be driven largely by the need to install energy-efficient air conditioning, heating, and ventilation systems in older buildings. The number of industrial, commercial, and residential structures that will be built over the next decade is also expected to be substantial. This will create additional employment opportunities.