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Construction Laborers

Significant Points
  • Job opportunities should be good.
  • With training and experience, construction laborers can move into other skilled craft occupations.
  • Most construction laborers learn through informal on-the-job training, but formal apprenticeship programs provide more thorough preparation.
  • Like many other construction occupations, employment opportunities are affected by the cyclical nature of the construction industry and can vary greatly by State and locality.

    Nature of the Work

    Construction laborers can be found on almost all construction sites performing a wide range of tasks from the very easy to the potentially hazardous. They can be found at building, highway, and heavy construction sites; tunnel and shaft excavations; and demolition sites. Many of the jobs they perform require physical strength and some training and experience. Other jobs require little skill and can be learned in a short amount of time. While most construction laborers tend to specialize in a type of construction, such as highway or tunnel construction, they are generalists who perform many different tasks during all stages of construction. However, construction laborers who work in underground construction, such as in tunnels, or in demolition are more likely to specialize in only those areas.

    Construction laborers clean and prepare construction sites, which may require them to remove asbestos or lead-based paint from buildings. Laborers also remove trees and debris, tend pumps, compressors and generators, and build forms for pouring concrete. They erect and disassemble scaffolding and other temporary structures. They load, unload, identify, and distribute building materials to the appropriate location according to project plans and specifications. Laborers also tend machines; for example, they may mix concrete using a portable mixer or tend a machine that pumps concrete, grout, cement, sand, plaster, or stucco through a spray gun for application to ceilings and walls. Construction laborers often help other craftworkers, including carpenters, plasterers, operating engineers, and masons.

    Construction laborers are responsible for oversight of the installation and maintenance of traffic control devices and patterns. At heavy and highway construction sites, this work may include clearing and preparing highway work zones and rights of way; installing traffic barricades, cones, and markers; and controlling traffic passing near, in, and around work zones. They also dig trenches, install sewer, water, and storm drain pipes, and place concrete and asphalt on roads. Other highly specialized tasks include operating laser guidance equipment to place pipes, operating air, electric, and pneumatic drills, and transporting and setting explosives for tunnel, shaft, and road construction.

    Construction laborers operate a variety of equipment including pavement breakers; jackhammers; earth tampers; concrete, mortar, and plaster mixers; electric and hydraulic boring machines; torches; small mechanical hoists; laser beam equipment; and surveying and measuring equipment. They may use computers and other high-tech input devices to control robotic pipe cutters and cleaners. To perform their jobs effectively, construction laborers must be familiar with the duties of other craftworkers and with the materials, tools, and machinery they use.

    Construction laborers often work as part of a team with other skilled craftworkers, jointly carrying out assigned construction tasks. At other times, construction laborers may work alone, reading and interpreting instructions, plans, and specifications with little or no supervision.

    Working Conditions

    Most laborers do physically demanding work. They may lift and carry heavy objects, and stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl in awkward positions. Some work at great heights, or outdoors in all weather conditions. Some jobs expose workers to harmful materials or chemicals, fumes, odors, loud noise, or dangerous machinery. Some laborers may be exposed to lead-based paint, asbestos, or other hazardous substances during their work especially when working in confined spaces. To avoid injury, workers in these jobs wear safety clothing, such as gloves, hardhats, protective chemical suits, and devices to protect their eyes, respiratory system, or hearing. While working in underground construction, construction laborers must be especially alert to safely follow procedures and must deal with a variety of hazards.

    Construction laborers generally work 8-hour shifts, although longer shifts are common. Overnight work may be required when working on highways. Construction laborers may work only during certain seasons in certain parts of the country. They may also experience weather-related work stoppages at any time of the year.

    Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

    Many construction laborer jobs require few skills, but others require specialized training and experience. Many workers enter the occupation with few skills by obtaining a job with a contractor who will then provide on-the-job training. Entry-level workers generally start as helpers, assisting more experienced workers. A growing route of entry is through temporary help agencies that send laborers to construction sites for short-term work. Beginning laborers perform routine tasks, such as cleaning and preparing the worksite and unloading materials. When the opportunity arises, they learn from experienced construction trades workers how to do more difficult tasks, such as operating tools and equipment. During this time, the construction laborer may elect to attend a trade or vocational school, or community college to receive further trade-related training.

    The most skilled laborers usually have more formalized training. Some employers, particularly large nonresidential construction contractors with union membership, offer employees formal apprenticeships. These programs include between 2 and 4 years of classroom and on-the-job training. A core curriculum consisting of basic construction skills such as blueprint reading, the correct use of tools and equipment, and knowledge of safety and health procedures comprises the first 200 hours. The remainder of the curriculum consists of specialized skills training in three of the largest segments of the construction industry: Building construction; heavy/highway construction; and environmental remediation, such as lead or asbestos abatement, and mold or hazardous waste remediation. Workers who use dangerous equipment or handle toxic chemicals usually receive specialized training in safety awareness and procedures. Apprenticeship applicants usually must be at least 18 years old and meet local requirements. Because the number of apprenticeship programs is limited, however, only a small proportion of laborers learn their trade through these programs.

    High school classes in English, mathematics, physics, mechanical drawing, blueprint reading, welding, and general shop are recommended. Laborers need manual dexterity, eye-hand coordination, good physical fitness, an ability to work as a member of a team, and a good sense of balance. The ability to solve arithmetic problems quickly and accurately also is required. In addition, a good work history or military service is viewed favorably by contractors. Computer skills also are important for advancement as construction becomes increasingly mechanized and computerized.

    Through training and experience, laborers can move into other construction occupations. Laborers may also advance to become construction supervisors or general contractors. For those who would like to advance, it is increasingly important to be able to communicate in both English and Spanish in order to relay instructions and safety precautions to workers with limited understanding of English; Spanish-speaking workers make up a large part of the construction workforce in many areas. Supervisors and contractors need good English skills in order to deal with clients and subcontractors. Supervisors and contractors should be able to identify and estimate the quantity of materials needed to complete a job, and accurately estimate how long a job will take to complete and at what cost.


    Construction laborers held about 1 million jobs in 2004. They worked throughout the country but, like the general population, were concentrated in metropolitan areas. Most construction laborers work in the construction industry and almost one-third work for special trade contractors. About 15 percent were self-employed in 2004.

    Job Outlook

    Employment of construction laborers is expected to grow more slowly than average for all occupations through the year 2014 as the construction industry in general grows more slowly than it has in the recent past . However, job opportunities are expected to be good due to the numerous openings that rise each year as laborers leave the occupation. Opportunities will be best for those with experience and specialized skills, and for those willing to relocate to areas with new construction projects. Opportunities will also be good for laborers specializing in lead, asbestos, and other hazardous materials removal.

    Although construction will continue to grow, construction laborer jobs will be adversely affected by automation as some jobs are replaced by new machines and equipment that improve productivity and quality. Also, laborers will be increasingly employed by staffing agencies that will contract laborers out to employers on a temporary basis.

    Employment of construction laborers, like that of many other construction workers, can be variable or intermittent due to the limited duration of construction projects and the cyclical nature of the construction industry. Employment opportunities can vary greatly by State and locality. During economic downturns, job openings for construction laborers decrease as the level of construction activity declines.


    Median hourly earnings of construction laborers in May 2004 were $12.10. The middle 50 percent earned between $9.47 and $16.88. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $7.71, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $23.61. Median hourly earnings in the industries employing the largest number of construction laborers in May 2004 were as follows:

    Highway, street, and bridge construction $13.55
    Nonresidential building construction 12.94
    Other specialty trade contractors 12.43
    Residential building construction 12.18
    Foundation, structure, and building exterior contractors 11.90

    Earnings for construction laborers can be reduced by poor weather or by downturns in construction activity, which sometimes result in layoffs. Apprentices or helpers usually start at about 50 percent of the wage rate paid to experienced workers. Pay increases as apprentices gain experience and learn new skills.

    Some laborers belong to the Laborers’ International Union of North America.

    Related Occupations

    The work of construction laborers is closely related to other construction occupations. Other workers who perform similar physical work include persons in material-moving occupations; forest, conservation, and logging workers; and grounds maintenance workers.

    Sources of Additional Information

    For information about jobs as construction laborers, contact local building or construction contractors, local joint labor-management apprenticeship committees, apprenticeship agencies, or the local office of your State Employment Service.

    For information on education programs for laborers, contact:

    • Laborers-AGC Education and Training Fund, 37 Deerfield Road, P.O. Box 37, Pomfret Center, CT 06259. Internet: http://www.laborerslearn.org/
    • National Center for Construction Education and Research, P.O. Box 141104, Gainesville, FL 32614-1104. Internet: http://www.nccer.org/
    • Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition

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