Optimistic, realistic in the concrete business

Pretty much anything that’s built requires concrete. So we mark it as a positive economic sign when one of MPR’s Public Insight Network sources tells us he’s in the concrete business and is cautiously optimistic about the future.

Mike Berg of St. Paul, wrote recently to tell us that he’d been hired this summer as an engineer designing concrete mixtures for a Minnesota concrete business.

We count that as good news because this recession has been a struggle for Minnesota engineers and architects. Berg, 36, has seen it. He tells us:

A year ago, I was out of work, spending 40+ hours a week searching for a job, fruitlessly. With a young son and my wife at less than 40 hours a week of work, it was difficult to keep a positive attitude for the six months I was out of work.

By February, I had finally found a job and was looking forward to working again. While the job excited me, it was not in civil design, where I’d been for two years.

Just as I was getting acclimated, I began receiving calls from a recruiter. Turns out, they had a client who wanted someone with experience designing concrete, which happened to be my expertise and a dream job of mine.

Thirteen months after losing a great job, six months of a decent job, I’m a few months into another great job that I can see myself in for a long time to come.

There’s some evidence construction is recovering. The housing market seems to be bottoming out with a key housing index showing broad U.S. improvement in housing values, particularly in the Twin Cities.

Construction was one of only two job categories showing growth in job vacancies from August 2008 to August 2009, according to the state labor department (the other was “personal care & service”).

But no one’s expecting a return to the go-go days anytime soon.MPR ran a story Monday on architects still suffering.

“Ready mix concrete sales peaked in Minnesota in the summer of 2005 and have followed the national housing trend down pretty faithfully since then,” said Fred Corrigan, executive director of the Aggregate & Ready Mix Association of Minnesota.

“The slump in commercial/industrial construction has added to that trends in the past year and does not show any hope of that turning around for the next year or two.”

While Berg feels like he’s on solid ground in a job he really likes, he keeps a wary eye on the economy.

While it’s great to be working again, and busily working, I also understand that things can turn on a dime. I know our competitors are coming at us from all sides, and the construction market is fragile right now.

Housing starts still aren’t where they were a few years ago, and that pushes back on infrastructure construction, meaning all the contractors are fighting like mad for jobs. (I remember even in mid-08, we had some jobs come back WAY under estimated costs; contractors were bidding low just to keep working.) When the contractors are bidding down the jobs, we have to in turn bid down the cost of materials that we charge.

So while I’m optimistic, there’s a healthy dose of reality.

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Are you in the construction business in Minnesota? Tell us what you’re seeing. Check out the map below to read what people in MPR’s Public Insight Network are telling us about the job climate around them.

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