Wisconsin’s construction market is on uneven ground right now, where some companies are finding opportunities to grow, while others are standing still or slipping back.
Showing promise is The Boldt Co., Appleton, which increased its Madison office space and added two employees of late. The company has secured several major University of Wisconsin System projects, such as renovation of the Charter Street Heating Plant, and is finding work in other sectors as well.
“We’re in market sectors that aren’t covered by some of our competitors,” said John Hale, group president of central operations for Boldt. “We do have a pretty strong emphasis on industrial and power work, and those are a couple market sectors I think are (doing better) than health care and higher education.”
But at the same time, Wisconsin lost 1,700 construction jobs between March and April, according to the latest U.S. Labor Department figures released by the Associated General Contractors of America.
“I think two big categories, retail and office construction, are going to remain weak for quite a while,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist for AGC.
Wisconsin has lost 11.3 percent — or 11,000 jobs — of its workforce during the past year, according to the latest AGC figures. The drop baffled analysts such as Simonson, who long has predicted a rebound for Wisconsin.
“I’ve been getting more reports of factories being planned or breaking ground,” he said. “But I think these results are going to be very uneven from one state to another.”
In the middle are companies such as CableCom LLC, a Milwaukee-based fiber optics construction company that has about 60 staff members. That number has remained flat for about a year, said Kathy Kirst, human resources manager.
“In the wintertime, we had a number of times we didn’t work, either due to snow or severe cold conditions,”Kirst said. “And, in the spring, we’ve been faced with heavy rain. So, for an outside crew, if it’s raining, a lot of times they aren’t working, or they’re affected by the rain.”
Simonson also cited weather as a reason for the state’s poor showing in the latest national numbers.
“I know that explanation is wearing a little thin by April, but certainly in (Wisconsin) the March figures are (affected by weather),” he said.
Hale said he wasn’t buying that excuse, however. He agreed harsh weather conditions play some role in construction activity, but said it only affected “a fraction of a percent” of Wisconsin’s workforce.
“I think it’s a minimal impact,” Hale said. “It’s maybe slowed a few things, but over the next few months that will equalize.”
Kirst sees improvement coming, she said, as the company plans to fill some full-time positions — such as one opening for a drill rig operator — in the near future. That would put CableCom “slightly ahead of where we were the previous year,” she said.
Simonson said he hoped many companies are like CableCom; positioned to grow, but waiting for the right time to add positions. Otherwise, he said, his optimism for 2011 quickly could fade.
“It’s already taken a little longer than I expected, but I think clearly there have been some extreme headwinds, in terms of the severe state budget situation in Wisconsin and also the local government budgets,” Simonson said.
The latest U.S. Labor Department figures reveal similar irregularities across the country: states such as Oklahoma and Texas added jobs last month, while states including Nevada and Minnesota continued to shed positions.
With a change in weather, improvement could come, however, Simonson said.
“While there’s no way of sugarcoating these April results, it’s early to panic,” Simonson said. “There’s still some weather factors that could be in play. It’s always tricky when using a winter month for a comparison.”