Construction laborers and helpers perform many basic tasks that require physical labor on construction sites.
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:
Construction laborers held about 1.1 million jobs in 2012, of which 60 percent were employed in the construction industry. About 23 percent of construction laborers were self-employed.
The employment levels of construction helper specialties were as follows:
|Helpers--pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters||47,400|
|Helpers--brickmasons, blockmasons, stonemasons, and tile and marble setters||24,400|
|Helpers, construction trades, all other||21,400|
|Helpers--painters, paperhangers, plasterers, and stucco masons||11,100|
Most construction laborers and helpers do physically demanding work. Some work at great heights or outdoors in all weather conditions; others may be required to work in tunnels. They must use earplugs around loud equipment and wear gloves, safety glasses, and other protective gear.
Injuries and Illnesses
Construction laborers have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. Workers may experience cuts from materials and tools, falls from ladders and scaffolding, and burns from chemicals or equipment. Some jobs expose workers to harmful materials, fumes, odors, or dangerous machinery. Workers also may experience muscle fatigue and injuries related to lifting and carrying heavy materials. Although they face similar hazards, construction helpers generally experience a rate of injuries and illnesses that is close to the national average.
Like many construction workers, most laborers and helpers work full time. Although they sometimes stop work because of bad weather, they often work overtime to meet deadlines. Laborers and helpers on highway and bridge projects may need to work overnight to avoid major disruptions to traffic. In some parts of the country, construction laborers and helpers may work only during certain seasons.
About 23 percent of construction laborers were self-employed in 2012. Self-employed workers may be able to set their own schedule. In contrast, very few helpers were self-employed.
Most construction laborers and helpers learn their trade through short-term on-the-job training.
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.
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
- Work zone safety
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.
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.
The median annual wage for construction laborers and helpers was $29,160 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $18,840, and the top 10 percent earned more than $55,750.
The median wages for construction laborers and helpers in May 2012 were as follows:
- $29,990 for construction laborers
- $28,220 for brickmason, blockmason, stonemason, and tile and marble setter helpers
- $27,670 for electrician helpers
- $26,670 for pipelayer, plumber, pipefitter, and steamfitter helpers
- $25,550 for carpenter helpers
- $24,290 for painter, paperhanger, plasterer, and stucco mason helpers
- $23,300 for roofer helpers
- $25,610 for all other construction helpers
The starting pay for apprentices is usually between 30 percent and 60 percent of what fully trained laborers make. As apprentices learn to do more, they receive pay increases.
Like many construction workers, most construction laborers and helpers work full time. Although they sometimes stop work because of bad weather, they often work overtime to meet deadlines. Laborers and helpers on highway and bridge projects may need to work overnight, to avoid major disruptions to traffic.
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.
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.
For details about apprenticeships or other work opportunities for construction laborers and helpers, contact the offices of the state employment service, the state apprenticeship agency, local construction contractors or firms that employ laborers, or local union–management apprenticeship committees. Apprenticeship information is available from the U.S. Department of Labor's toll-free help line, 1 (877) 872-5627, or Employment and Training Administration.
For information about education programs for laborers, visit