Construction laborers and helpers

What Construction Laborers and Helpers Do

Construction laborers and helpers perform many basic tasks that require physical labor on construction sites.

Duties

Construction laborers and helpers typically do the following:

  • Clean and prepare construction sites by removing debris and possible hazards
  • Load or unload building materials to be used in construction
  • Build or take apart bracing, scaffolding, and temporary structures
  • Dig trenches, backfill holes, or compact earth to prepare for construction
  • Operate or tend equipment and machines used in construction
  • Help craft workers with their duties
  • Follow construction plans and instructions from supervisors or more experienced workers

Construction laborers and helpers work on almost all construction sites, performing a wide range of tasks from the very easy to the extremely difficult and hazardous. Although many of the tasks they do require some training and experience, most tasks usually require little skill and can be learned quickly. 

Construction laborers perform a variety of construction-related activities during all phases of construction. However, the main task laborers perform is preparing and cleaning up construction sites. Although most laborers are generalists—such as those who install barricades, cones, and markers to control traffic patterns—many others specialize. For example, those who operate the machines and equipment that lay concrete or asphalt on roads are more likely to specialize in those areas.

Most construction laborers work in the following areas:

  • Building homes and businesses
  • Tearing down buildings
  • Removing hazardous materials
  • Building highways and roads
  • Digging tunnels and mine shafts

Construction laborers use a variety of tools and equipment. Some tools are simple, such as brooms and shovels; other equipment is more sophisticated, such as pavement breakers, jackhammers, earth tampers, and surveying equipment.

With special training, laborers may help transport and use explosives or run hydraulic boring machines to dig out tunnels. They may learn to use laser beam equipment to place pipes and use computers to control robotic pipe cutters. They may become certified to remove asbestos, lead, or chemicals.

Helpers assist construction craft workers, such as electricians and carpenters, with a variety of basic tasks. They may carry tools and materials or help set up equipment. For example, many helpers work with cement masons to move and set forms (molds that determine the shape of concrete). Many other helpers assist with taking apart equipment, cleaning up sites, and disposing of waste, as well as helping with any other needs of craft workers.

Many construction trades have helpers who assist craft workers. The following are trades that have associated helpers:

  • Brickmasons, blockmasons, and stonemasons
  • Carpenters
  • Electricians
  • Painters, construction and maintenance
  • Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters
  • Roofers
  • Tile and marble setters

How to Become a Construction Laborer or Helper

Most construction laborers and helpers learn their trade through short-term on-the-job training.

Education

Although there are no specific education requirements, high school classes in English, mathematics, blueprint reading, welding, and shop can be helpful.

Some workers attend a trade or vocational school, an association training class, or community college to receive further training.

Training

Most construction laborers and helpers learn through short-term on-the-job training after being hired by a construction contractor or a temporary-help employment agency. Workers typically gain experience by doing jobs under the guidance of experienced workers.

Although the majority of workers learn by assisting experienced workers, some opt for apprenticeship programs. Programs generally include 2 to 4 years of technical instruction and on-the-job training. The Laborers International Union of North America requires 160 hours of training before workers are allowed on site. Workers learn basic construction skills, such as communication, blueprint reading, proper tools and equipment use, 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 for removing such materials as lead or asbestos.

Several groups, including unions and contractor associations, sponsor apprenticeship programs. Apprenticeship programs usually have only a basic age qualification—age 18 or older—for entrance. A high school diploma or equivalent is preferred but not required.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Laborers who remove hazardous materials (hazmat) must have a federal hazmat license required for all hazardous materials removal workers.

Depending on the work they do, laborers may need specific certifications. Certification can help workers prove that they have the knowledge to perform more complex tasks.

The following are examples of areas which may require certification:

  • Asbestos removal
  • Energy auditing
  • Lead abatement
  • OSHA 10 and/or 30 hour Construction Safety Certification
  • Pipeline operation
  • Radiological work
  • Rough terrain forklift operation
  • Scaffold use and building
  • Signaling
  • Weatherization
  • Welding
  • Work zone safety

Advancement

Through experience and training, construction laborers can advance into positions that involve more complex tasks. For example, laborers may earn certifications in welding, scaffold erecting, or concrete finishing and then spend more time performing activities that require the specialized skill.

Through training and experience, helpers can potentially move into construction craft occupations. For example, experience as a helper may lead to becoming a tilesetter.

Important Qualities

Color vision. Laborers and helpers may need to be able to distinguish colors to do their job. For example, an electrician’s helper must be able to distinguish different colors of wire to help the lead electrician.

Math skills. Laborers and some helpers need to perform basic math calculations to do their job. They often help with measuring on jobsites or they may be part of a surveying crew.

Mechanical skills. Laborers frequently are required to operate and maintain equipment, such as jackhammers.

Physical stamina. Laborers and helpers must have endurance to perform strenuous tasks throughout the day. Highway laborers, for example, spend hours on their feet—often in hot temperatures—with few breaks.

Physical strength. Laborers and helpers often must lift heavy materials or equipment. For example, cement mason helpers must move cinder blocks, which weigh more than 40 pounds each.

Job Outlook

Construction Laborers and Helpers

Percent change in employment, projected 2012-22

Helpers, construction trades

31%

Construction laborers

24%

Construction trades workers

22%

Total, all occupations

11%

 

 

 

 

 

 

Overall employment of construction laborers and helpers is projected to grow 25 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Employment of construction laborers is projected to grow 24 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Laborers work in all fields of construction, and demand for laborers will mirror the level of overall construction activity. Repairing and replacing the nation’s infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, and water lines, should result in steady demand for laborers.

Although employment growth of specific types of helpers is expected to vary (see table below), overall demand for helpers will be driven by the construction of schools, office buildings, factories, and power plants. Population growth also is expected to result in construction of new homes, which will stimulate the need for many additional helpers. Remodeling needs will also result in some new jobs.  

However, demand for helpers is also affected by economic downturns. In the construction slowdown following the 2007–09 recession, the number of jobs for helpers decreased faster than jobs for the craft workers they help. Contractors kept their more experienced workers and had them perform tasks that helpers would normally do. As construction returns to normal levels, helpers will be needed to perform their standard tasks again.

Job Prospects

Construction laborers with the most skills should have the best job opportunities. Job opportunities also will vary by occupation; for example, carpenters’ helpers should have the best job prospects, while helpers for painters, paperhangers, plasterers, and stucco masons will likely find fewer job openings. Prospective employees with military service experience often have better opportunities when applying for a job.

Employment of construction laborers and helpers is especially 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.

Employment projections data for Construction Laborers and Helpers, 2012-22
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2012 Projected Employment, 2022 Change, 2012-22 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Construction laborers and helpers

1,284,600 1,609,700 25 325,200

Construction laborers

47-2061 1,071,100 1,331,000 24 259,800  

Helpers--brickmasons, blockmasons, stonemasons, and tile and marble setters

47-3011 24,400 34,900 43 10,500  

Helpers--carpenters

47-3012 36,400 47,100 30 10,800  

Helpers--electricians

47-3013 60,800 83,300 37 22,400  

Helpers--painters, paperhangers, plasterers, and stucco masons

47-3014 11,100 12,200 10 1,100  

Helpers--pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters

47-3015 47,400 60,600 28 13,200  

Helpers--roofers

47-3016 12,000 14,000 17 2,100  

Helpers, construction trades, all other

47-3019 21,400 26,600 24 5,200  
  Occupation Description Entry-Level Education 2012 Median Pay
Brickmasons, blockmasons, and stonemasons Brickmasons, blockmasons, and stonemasons

Brickmasons, blockmasons, and stonemasons (or, simply, masons) use bricks, concrete blocks, and natural and man-made stones to build fences, walkways, walls, and other structures.'

High school diploma or equivalent $44,950
Carpenters Carpenters

Carpenters construct and repair building frameworks and structures—such as stairways, doorframes, partitions, and rafters—made from wood and other materials. They also may install kitchen cabinets, siding, and drywall.'

High school diploma or equivalent $39,940
Electricians Electricians

Electricians install and maintain electrical power, communications, lighting, and control systems in homes, businesses, and factories.'

High school diploma or equivalent $49,840
Grounds maintenance workers Grounds maintenance workers

Grounds maintenance workers provide a pleasant outdoor environment by ensuring that the grounds of houses, businesses, and parks are attractive, orderly, and healthy. '

No formal education $23,970
Hazardous materials removal workers Hazardous materials removal workers

Hazardous materials (hazmat) removal workers identify and dispose of asbestos, radioactive and nuclear waste, arsenic, lead, and other hazardous materials. They also neutralize and clean up materials that are flammable, corrosive, reactive, or toxic.'

High school diploma or equivalent $37,590
Material moving machine operators Material moving machine operators

Material moving machine operators use machinery to transport various objects. Some operators move construction materials around building sites or the land around a mine. Others move goods around a warehouse or onto container ships.'

Vary by the type of job $31,530
Painters, construction and maintenance Painters, construction and maintenance Painters apply paint, stain, and coatings to walls, buildings, bridges, and other structures.' Less than high school $35,190
Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters install and repair pipes that carry liquids or gases to and in businesses, homes, and factories.' High school diploma or equivalent $49,140
Tile and marble setters Tile and marble setters

Tile and marble setters apply hard tile and marble to walls, floors, and other surfaces.'

Less than high school $37,040
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