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Grand Forks metro lost most construction jobs in the U.S. last year

Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, speaks Tuesday at the Opp Construction warehouse in Grand Forks. April Baumgarten/ Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS—The Grand Forks metro area had the greatest percentage of construction job losses in the nation last year, and the industry is calling for Congress to pass a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill to give companies more work.

Construction businesses lost a total of 1,000 jobs, or 24 percent, in Grand Forks between December 2016 and December 2017, according to numbers released by the Associated General Contractors of America. The city had about 3,100 employees in the industry, marking the largest percentage drop among the 358 metros the AGCA tracks.

"Roughly, almost one out of every four construction jobs in the Grand Forks area disappeared during the last 12 months," AGCA spokesman Brian Turmail said during a Tuesday news conference at a Grand Forks warehouse that houses Opp Construction equipment.

Grand Forks ranked sixth for total number of jobs lost.

Job loss has been evident in other metro areas across the U.S., Turmail said. The AGCA reported 43 metros lost construction jobs and 46 saw stagnant hiring.

Turmail and construction company representatives attributed the job decline to a drop in workload, particularly in the public sector. The nation saw a 2.5 percent decline in public spending for infrastructure in the past 12 months, according to the AGCA.

"What makes these job losses ... particularly frustrating is, frankly, many of them could have been avoided," Turmail said. "Yet too many local construction workers that work on vital infrastructure like highways and bridges are seeing less work today than just a few years ago."

The industry wants Congress to pass an infrastructure bill that could fund $1.5 trillion in road, bridge and waterway projects over the next decade. President Donald Trump previously said he would make fixing aging infrastructure in the country a priority, but it's unclear when Congress would take up an infrastructure bill.

The other metros that saw increases could be in danger of losing jobs if Congress doesn't pass an infrastructure bill soon, though Turmail said he is "cautiously optimistic" such legislation is next on the list for Congress once an agreement on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, is reached.

The construction industry has had problems finding qualified workers because of low unemployment, and though that has limited job growth, it hasn't played a role in jobs being lost, Turmail said.

"You don't lose one in four jobs ... because you can't find qualified workers," he said. "You lose one in four jobs because of a lack of work."

Opp Construction, a Grand Forks company that owns the warehouse where the media event was held, didn't cut jobs last year, but it has seen a drop in workload and couldn't hire the 30 to 40 people it typically does each construction season, Opp Vice President Sally Miskavige said.

"At Opp Construction, we think of our employees as family members," she said. "We don't want to tell those employees who have worked for us for many years that there is no longer room for them. That really hurts."

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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