Career Guide for Construction Workers

Construction workers perform a variety of jobs and tasks during the construction process of buildings and other structures. Most construction workers learn on the job and availability of jobs range from geography to geography.

In this free career guide, you will learn how to have a successful career as a construction worker.

Construction Worker Summary

  • Many construction laborer jobs require a variety of basic skills, but others require specialized training and experience.
  • Most construction laborers learn on the job, but formal apprenticeship programs provide the most thorough preparation.
  • Job opportunities vary by locality, but in many areas there will be competition, especially for jobs requiring limited skills.
  • Laborers who have specialized skills or who can relocate near new construction projects should have the best opportunities.

Working as a Construction Worker

Construction laborers can be found on almost all construction sites, performing a wide range of tasks from the very easy to the hazardous. They can be found at building, highway, and heavy construction sites; residential and commercial sites; tunnel and shaft excavations; and demolition sites. Many of the jobs they perform require physical strength, training, and experience. Other jobs require little skill and can be learned quickly. Although most construction laborers specialize in a type of construction, such as highway or tunnel construction, some are generalists who perform many different tasks during all stages of construction. 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. They remove trees and debris; tend pumps, compressors, and generators; and 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 use a portable mixer to mix concrete or tend a machine that pumps concrete, grout, cement, sand, plaster, or stucco through a spray gun for application to ceilings and walls. They often help other craftworkers, including carpenters, plasterers, operating engineers, and masons.

Construction laborers are responsible for the installation and maintenance of traffic control devices and patterns. At 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. Construction laborers also dig trenches; install sewer, water, and storm drainpipes; 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 the construction of tunnels, shafts, and roads.

Some construction laborers help with the removal of hazardous materials, such as asbestos, lead, or chemicals.

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, as all of these workers work as part of a team, jointly carrying out assigned construction tasks.

Work environment. Most construction laborers do physically demanding work. Some work at great heights or outdoors in all weather conditions. Some jobs expose workers to harmful materials or chemicals, fumes, odors, loud noises, or dangerous machinery. Some laborers may be exposed to lead-based paint, asbestos, or other hazardous substances during their work, especially when they work in confined spaces. Workers in this occupation experience one of the highest rates of nonfatal injuries and illnesses; consequently, the work requires constant attention to safety on the job. 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 underground, construction laborers must be especially alert in order to follow procedures safely and must deal with a variety of hazards.

A standard 40 hour work week is the most common work week for construction laborers. About 1 in 7 has a variable schedule, as overnight work may be required in highway work. In some parts of the country, construction laborers may work only during certain seasons. They also may experience weather-related work stoppages at any time of the year.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Many construction laborer jobs require a variety of basic skills, but others require specialized training and experience. Most construction laborers learn on the job, but formal apprenticeship programs provide the most thorough preparation.

Education and training. Although some construction laborer jobs have no specific educational qualifications or entry-level training, apprenticeships for laborers usually require a high school diploma or the equivalent. High school classes in English, mathematics, physics, mechanical drawing, blueprint reading, welding, and general shop can be helpful.

Most workers start by getting a job with a contractor who provides on-the-job training. Increasingly, construction laborers are finding work through temporary-help agencies that send laborers to construction sites for short-term work. Entry-level workers generally help more experienced workers, by performing 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. Construction laborers also may choose or be required to attend a trade or vocational school, association training class, or community college to receive further trade-related training.

Some laborers receive more formal training in the form of an apprenticeship. These programs include between 2 and 4 years of classroom and on-the-job training. In the first 200 hours, workers learn basic construction skills, such as blueprint reading, the correct use of tools and equipment, and safety and health procedures. The remainder of the curriculum consists of specialized skills training in three of the largest segments of the construction industry: building construction, heavy and highway construction, and environmental remediation, such as lead or asbestos abatement and mold or hazardous waste remediation. Training in “green,” energy-efficient construction, an area of growth in the construction industry, is now available and can help workers find employment.

Workers who use dangerous equipment or handle toxic chemicals usually receive specialized safety training. Laborers who remove hazardous materials are required to take union- or employer-sponsored Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety training.

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 in this way.

Other qualifications. Laborers need manual dexterity, eye-hand coordination, good physical fitness, a good sense of balance, and an ability to work as a member of a team. The ability to solve arithmetic problems quickly and accurately may be required. In addition, military service or a good work history is viewed favorably by contractors.

Certification and advancement. Laborers may earn certifications in welding, scaffold erecting, and concrete finishing. These certifications help workers prove that they have the knowledge to perform more complex tasks.

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 communication skills to deal with clients and subcontractors.

In addition, 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 what it will cost. Computer skills also are important for advancement as construction becomes increasingly mechanized and computerized.

Employment as a Construction Worker

Construction laborers held about 1.2 million jobs in 2008. They worked throughout the country, but like the general population, were concentrated in metropolitan areas. About 62 percent of construction laborers worked in the construction industry, including 27 percent who worked for specialty trade contractors. About 21 percent were self-employed in 2008.

Job Outlook

Employment is expected to grow much faster than the average. In many areas, there will be competition for jobs, especially those requiring limited skills. Laborers who have specialized skills or who can relocate near new construction projects should have the best opportunities.

Employment change. Employment of construction laborers is expected to grow by 20 percent between 2008 and 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations. Because of the large variety of tasks that laborers perform, demand for laborers will mirror the level of overall construction activity. However, some jobs may be adversely affected by automation as they are replaced by new machinery and equipment that improves productivity and quality.

Increasing job prospects for construction laborers, however, is the expected additional government funding for the repair and reconstruction of the Nation’s infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, public buildings, and water lines. The occupation should experience an increase in demand because laborers make up a significant portion of workers on these types of projects.

New emphasis on green construction also should help lead to better employment prospects as many green practices require more labor on construction sites. Additional duties resulting from practicing green construction include having to segregate materials that can be used again from those which cannot, and the actual reuse of such materials. In addition, these workers will be needed for the construction of any new projects to harness wind or solar power.

Job prospects. In many geographic areas, construction laborers—especially for those with limited skills—will experience competition because of a plentiful supply of workers who are willing to work as day laborers. Overall opportunities will be best for those with experience and specialized skills and for those who can relocate to areas with new construction projects. Opportunities also will be better for laborers specializing in road construction.

Employment of construction laborers, like that of many other construction workers, is sensitive to the fluctuations of the economy. On the one hand, workers in these trades may experience periods of unemployment when the overall level of construction falls. On the other hand, shortages of these workers may occur in some areas during peak periods of building activity.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Number Percent
Construction laborers 47-2061 1,248,700 1,504,600 255,900 20
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings for Construction Workers

Median hourly wages of wage and salary construction laborers in May 2008 were $13.71. The middle 50 percent earned between $10.74 and $18.57. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $8.67, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $25.98. Median hourly wages in the industries employing the largest number of construction laborers were as follows:

Nonresidential building construction $14.95
Other specialty trade contractors 13.81
Residential building construction 13.79
Foundation, structure, and building exterior contractors 13.35
Employment services 10.80

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 out earning about 60 percent of the wage paid to experienced workers. Pay increases as apprentices gain experience and learn new skills.

Some laborers—about 14 percent—belong to a union, mainly the Laborers’ International Union of North America.

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