These days, developers plow through projects with machine-gun consistency — hundreds of homes in Apollo Beach, even more in Wesley Chapel, hotels downtown, "mixed use" retail seemingly everywhere.

Condo towers rise like corn stalks after a rain, and if that hammering you hear isn't from the $2 billion airport upgrade, it's probably the $3 billion Water Street Tampa makeover.

Boom times are back, right?

In fact, by one important measure the construction industry remains a bit of slacker.

While Florida and Tampa Bay long ago recouped overall job losses created by the Great Recession, the construction sector has yet to catch up. Locally, construction employment peaked in June 2006 at 95,300 jobs before plunging to 50,100 in early 2011.

Today it's about 76,200, 20 percent off the pre-recession highs. The total would be even lower if the local population hadn't grown by more than 330,000 people over that time.

Newsart graphic:
Newsart graphic:

Conversely, most of the other major job sectors now employ significantly more people than before the recession. Professional and business services, for instance, has about 20 percent more jobs than at its pre-recession peak in 2007. The financial sector is up 11 percent. Leisure and hospitality, up 21 percent.

Construction jobs also lag in Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville. Indeed, none of the top 15 Florida metro areas tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics have reached their previous highs. Most aren't even close.

Part of the disconnect is just optics. Call it the "crane effect."
Compared to the early and mid 2000s, this time around a bigger slice of construction involves urban or at least urban-style projects — condo towers, office projects, and apartment buildings, often wrapped around parking garages with retail space mixed in. Even in the suburbs, that can mean cranes.

Workers in a lift at the Avanti Apartments project on 4th street south in St. Petersburg, June 7. (MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times)
Workers in a lift at the Avanti Apartments project on 4th street south in St. Petersburg, June 7. (MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times)

The large cranes, and the big buildings, are more conspicuous than single-family construction, said Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wells Fargo.

"Last cycle, you had large subdivisions going in all the way up to Citrus County, which meant more roads getting built in those subdivisions and more overall workers involved, too," Vitner said. "Sometimes all the home building isn't as easy to see, but it's more labor intensive."

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There are also indications the recent crackdown on undocumented workers, and more controls on legal immigration, has affected the number of available construction workers. That can make it harder for contractors to complete projects and move on to the next ones.

The construction workforce is aging, too. A lot of workers retired in recent years, without enough replacements, especially from the millennial generation.

Sean Strickler, west Florida division president for PulteGroup, one of the nation's largest home builders, said local subcontractors are all competing for the same group of workers, which has "definitely strained the labor pool."

That's not the only challenge, Strickler said. Land costs are rising, as are impact fees to help pay for schools and roads. And lumber prices soared to historic highs in the past year.

"While business is still really good, one of our biggest issues is the ability to hit a price point that appeals to first-time home buyers," he said. "The lack of labor, along with those other components, makes it harder."

Vitner said the workforce issues should not be underestimated.

"I think if contractors could get the workers they needed, we might add twice as many construction jobs as we added over the last year," he said. "We wouldn't get the same bump year after year after year. But we have a huge backlog of projects around the state."

Workers apply stucco to the Avanti apartment building 201 4th St. S., St. Petersburg. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Workers apply stucco to the Avanti apartment building 201 4th St. S., St. Petersburg. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)

Florida's boom and bust cycles often leave the construction industry in such shambles that it takes years, or decades, to dig out. The building spree of the early 1970s, for instance, gave way to a vicious recession. By some measures, it took until 1999 before the real value of construction returned to those lofty heights.

This time around, Tony Polito, regional director of Metrostudy, a research firm that tracks the housing market, is doubtful Florida or Tampa Bay will see construction employment surge back to prior highs.

In 2006, he pointed out, 22,409 non-rental units got built in the Tampa Bay area, more than double the current level. Even including all the rental units being built, the chasm is too wide, he said.

The area would have to create 50,000 jobs a year to support all the new construction needed to get back to pre-recession levels, he estimated. Right now, we're closer to 30,000 a year.

"I don't see it," Polito wrote in a statement.

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On the bright side, the tempered market reflects less speculative building, tighter lending standards, and developers with more skin in the game, all positive changes from the building bacchanal prior to the recession.

Vitner said he often gets asked whether the current construction market is beginning to feel like a replay of 2007. He doesn't think so. Construction is barely keeping up with demand or even lagging behind a little, he said. Vacancy rates aren't particularly high, and inventory remains tight.

"It seems to me that developers have learned a lot from past cycles and projects appear to be much more thought out," Vitner said. "That's positive, as Florida tends to run into trouble when real estate gets grossly overbuilt. It's really the only time Florida's economy has underperformed the national economy."

Strickler, of PulteGroup, said the home building market feels like it's on firmer footing compared to the go-go days before the recession. Tampa Bay residents on average make more money, there's more jobs than ever before, the population continues to grow and interest rates remain reasonable, he said.

"Hindsight is 20-20, for sure," he said. "Back then you probably would have looked at it and said this is the best thing ever. But today you really see all the fundamentals lining up. It feels healthier even if fewer people are working in the industry."