by Kevin Schofield
The “long read” this weekend is a items edited by Noah Smith, which studies construction worker productivity and how it is measured.
It is popular belief that productivity in construction has been falling slowly for decades, in sharp contrast to other intensive industries such as agriculture and manufacturing. This graphic from the economist sums up the picture well:
Smith points out that there are two problems with conventional wisdom. First, it sums up all constructions; Once broken down, there are some significant differences in productivity for different designs. For example, productivity in industrial construction has increased while productivity in transport construction has decreased.
Similarly, multi-family housing construction has become much more productive than single-family housing, suggesting that some types of buildings are more suited to innovation and technological improvements that increase worker productivity.
Smith argues that overall construction productivity has declined for so long because the mix of construction projects in the US has shifted over time towards more single-family homes and transportation projects, some of the least productive building forms. But Smith also poses a second problem: he doubts the way we measure productivity in construction, more precisely the accuracy of the underlying data. He rightly points out that worker productivity doesn’t suddenly increase over the course of a few years and then regress just as quickly, so the jagged edges in the graphs above are strong arguments that the underlying data is unreliable.
Smith’s article is a good reminder that it is usually a good idea to be skeptical about conventional wisdom – and that not all dates are created equal.
Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and founder of Inside Seattle City Council, a website that provides independent news and analysis from Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the Seattle News, Views and Brews podcast with Brian Callanan and appears from time to time on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review.
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