Labor Costs in Construction: A Comprehensive Guide

Understand what construction labor costs are, how to calculate them, and how to reduce them in this comprehensive guide.
construction labor costs
Construction Management Fundamentals
Roles & Responsibilities
Project Management
Tracking & Measuring Progress
Managing Cost & Budget
Quality & Risk Management
Leveraging Technology
Construction Management Fundamentals
Roles & Responsibilities
Project Management
Tracking & Measuring Progress
Managing Cost & Budget
Quality & Risk Management
Leveraging Technology

Track Construction Labor Costs In Real Time With Workyard

Did you know that construction labor costs account for 20-40% of total project expenses? 

So, understanding and effectively managing labor costs is vital for construction professionals to ensure project profitability, meet budget constraints, and deliver high-quality results. 

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll dive into the world of construction labor costs, providing valuable insights, strategies, and best practices for tracking, calculating, and reducing labor costs.

Construction labor costs encompass the expenses associated with the workforce, including wages, benefits, taxes, and indirect labor expenses. These costs can account for a substantial portion of a construction project’s budget and can heavily influence its financial viability.

However, managing labor costs goes beyond just controlling expenses. It requires optimizing resource allocation, enhancing productivity, and ensuring compliance with labor regulations. 

So whether you’re brand new to the construction industry or a seasoned professional, this guide will equip you with the knowledge and tools necessary to navigate the intricacies of labor costs in construction, optimize your project budgets, and ultimately drive success in your construction endeavors. 

So let’s dive in and unlock the secrets to mastering labor costs in construction!

What Are Labor Costs in Construction?

To begin learning about labor costs, we first need to learn the difference between direct and indirect labor costs in construction.

Direct Labor Costs

Direct labor costs in construction refer to the expenses associated with the individuals who directly contribute to the construction process. These workers are the backbone of any project, executing the necessary tasks that bring structures to life. 

Let’s break it down.

Wages and Salaries

The primary component of direct labor costs is the wages and salaries paid to workers. This includes all individuals who are actively engaged in the physical construction work on-site.

Benefits and Bonuses

In addition to wages and salaries, direct labor costs also include benefits and bonuses provided to the workers, such as:

  • health insurance
  • retirement plans
  • overtime pay
  • performance-based bonuses

Training and Certification

Ensuring that workers have the necessary skills and certifications is essential for maintaining quality and safety standards. 

Direct labor costs cover expenses related to training programs, certification courses, and ongoing professional development to enhance the expertise of the workforce.

Tool and Equipment Expenses

Construction workers heavily rely on tools and equipment to carry out their tasks efficiently. 

Direct labor costs include the investment in tools, their maintenance, and any necessary repairs. Having well-equipped workers helps streamline the construction process and improve productivity.

Indirect Labor Costs

Indirect labor costs in construction, often referred to as support labor costs, refer to the expenses associated with the workforce that indirectly supports construction activities. Although they may not be directly involved in the physical construction work, their contributions are crucial for the smooth operation of the project. 

Supervisory and Management Staff

Project managers, foremen, supervisors, and administrative personnel fall under the category of indirect labor costs. 

They play a critical role in overseeing and coordinating construction activities, ensuring compliance with regulations, managing timelines, and handling administrative tasks. 

Safety and Quality Assurance

Ensuring a safe working environment and maintaining quality standards are paramount in the construction industry. 

Indirect labor costs cover the expenses associated with safety officers, quality assurance personnel, and inspectors who monitor compliance with safety protocols and quality benchmarks.

Support Staff

Construction projects require various support functions such as accounting, procurement, human resources, and IT support. Indirect labor costs include the salaries and benefits of individuals performing these support roles. 

They contribute to the smooth functioning of the project by managing finances, handling logistics, managing personnel, and providing technological support.

General Overhead

General overhead costs, such as office rent, utilities, insurance, and legal fees, also contribute to indirect labor costs.

Direct vs. Indirect Construction Labor Costs

Understanding the distinction between direct and indirect labor costs is crucial for accurate project estimation, budgeting, and cost control. To better understand the differences between direct and indirect labor costs in construction, we’ve broken them down in the table below. 

Labor Cost
Labor Cost
Direct Labor Costs
Expenses associated with workers directly involved in physical construction tasks.
– Wages and salaries of carpenters, electricians, masons, plumbers, etc.
– Benefits and bonuses for construction workers.
– Training and certification programs for enhancing worker skills.
– Tool and equipment expenses for construction tasks.
Indirect Labor Costs
Expenses associated with workers indirectly supporting construction activities.
– Salaries of project managers, foremen, supervisors, and administrative personnel.
– Safety officers and quality assurance personnel ensuring compliance with standards.
– Support staff in accounting, procurement, HR, and IT roles.
– General overhead costs like office rent, utilities, insurance, and legal fees.

Factors Influencing Labor Costs

In the dynamic world of construction, labor costs are influenced by many factors that shape the market and impact the availability and pricing of skilled workers. Understanding these factors is crucial for construction professionals to accurately assess and manage labor costs. 

Labor Supply and Demand: The Balancing Act

The principle of supply and demand plays a significant role in determining labor costs in the construction industry. 

Scarcity vs. Abundance of Skilled Workers

In regions where there is a shortage of skilled construction workers, labor costs tend to increase as companies compete for limited resources. This can be due to factors such as population growth, infrastructure development, or specialized project requirements.

On the other hand, in areas with a surplus of skilled workers or during economic downturns, labor costs may decrease. Companies have more options to choose from, and workers may be willing to accept lower wages to secure employment.

The State of the Industry Today

According to a report from NPR, the construction industry is experiencing a dire shortage of skilled workers, with 129,000 job openings in February 2023. This shortage has resulted in increased labor costs as companies compete for a limited pool of skilled workers.

Market Conditions: Riding the Waves

The overall market conditions and economic trends play a vital role in influencing labor costs in the construction industry. 

Economic Growth

During periods of robust economic growth, there is increased construction activity, leading to a higher demand for labor. This surge in demand often drives up labor costs as companies compete for workers.

Inflation and Cost of Materials

Inflation affects not only the prices of materials but also the overall cost of living. As the cost of living rises, workers may demand higher wages to maintain their standard of living, impacting labor costs. 

Labor Costs are on the Rise

A recent report by The Gordian highlights the impact of market conditions on construction labor costs. 

According to the report, 98% of construction labor costs increased in the past year, driven by factors such as rising material prices and strong demand for construction projects in a growing economy.

Project Location: Geography Matters

The location of a construction project can have a profound effect on labor costs. Factors such as the regional economy, local labor market conditions, and proximity to resources can influence the availability and pricing of skilled workers.

As we mentioned, higher costs of housing, transportation, and other essential expenses can influence workers’ salary expectations. 

Regional Wage Disparities

Different regions have varying wage levels based on local economic conditions, cost of living, and market demand. Construction projects located in regions with higher wage levels are likely to have higher labor costs compared to projects in regions with lower wage levels.

Labor Market Competition

Areas experiencing high construction activity may face labor shortages and increased competition for skilled workers. This increased demand can drive up labor costs as contractors vie for available talent.

Construction in the Cities

An article published by Smart Cities Dive found that construction labor costs spike significantly in metropolitan areas in the United States. The article states that San Francisco, Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles, are four of the most expensive cities for construction in the world, partly due to increased labor costs in these high-cost cities.

Government Regulations: Compliance and Impact

Government regulations and policies in the construction industry can influence labor costs by imposing additional requirements, standards, and compliance measures. 

Labor Standards and Licensing Requirements

Governments may enforce specific labor standards and licensing requirements that workers must meet to be employed in construction. 

These regulations aim to ensure worker safety, quality standards, and compliance, but they can also increase labor costs by adding additional training or certification expenses.

Minimum Wage Laws

Government-mandated minimum wage laws directly impact labor costs by setting a baseline for hourly wages. Increases in minimum wage rates can raise labor costs for construction companies, particularly for lower-skilled workers.

Workplace Safety and Insurance

Government regulations require construction companies to maintain a safe working environment and provide workers’ compensation insurance coverage. Compliance with these regulations can add additional costs to construction projects.

Real World Impact

In May 2023, a new immigration law was put into effect by Governor Ron DeSantis that seeks to drive out illegal workers from the state. With undocumented workers filling up 5.2% of the workforce in Florida and making up a large portion of the low-wage construction employees, labor costs are expected to spike. 

Seasonality: Weathering the Changes

Weather conditions and seasonal fluctuations in construction activity can impact the availability of labor and affect labor costs in several ways.

Peak & Off-Peak Construction Seasons

Construction activities tend to peak during certain seasons when weather conditions are favorable. During these periods, the demand for labor increases, and labor costs may rise as a result of heightened competition for available workers.

In contrast, during off-peak seasons, construction activities may slow down due to weather constraints or reduced demand. This can lead to a surplus of labor, lower competition, and potentially lower labor costs.

Weather-Related Delays

Adverse weather conditions, such as heavy rain, snowstorms, or extreme temperatures, can cause project delays and impact labor costs. 

According to Nationwide, weather-related delays are responsible for $4 billion in total costs for the construction industry each year. 

Job cost reports are updated in Workyard whenever a time card is submitted, so you can slice and dice by project, employee, date, and cost code.

How To Calculate Labor Costs in Construction

Accurately calculating labor costs is essential for effective project budgeting, cost estimation, and resource allocation in the construction industry. Different methods can be employed to calculate labor costs based on the specific needs and requirements of a project. 

In this section, we’ll explore four commonly used methods for calculating labor costs in construction.

1. Bottom-Up Approach: Breaking It Down

The bottom-up approach involves breaking down a project into individual tasks or work activities and estimating the labor hours required for each task. 

1. Identify and list all the tasks or work activities involved in the construction project. This can include activities such as excavation, framing, electrical work, plumbing, etc.

2. Estimate the number of labor hours required for each task. This estimation can be based on historical data, industry benchmarks, expert knowledge, or consultations with experienced professionals.

3. Multiply the estimated labor hours for each task by the appropriate labor rate to calculate the labor cost. The labor rate can vary based on factors such as skill level, project location, and prevailing wage rates.

4. Sum up the labor costs for each task to arrive at the total labor cost for the project.

The bottom-up approach provides a detailed breakdown of labor costs, allowing for better cost control and budgeting. It requires a thorough understanding of the project scope and the labor requirements for each task.

2. Unit Pricing: Cost per Unit

Unit pricing involves assigning a cost per unit of measurement for specific construction activities. This method simplifies labor cost calculations by using standardized unit rates. 

1. Identify the units of measurement relevant to the construction activities. Units can be based on quantities such as square footage, linear footage, number of fixtures, or number of components.

2. Determine the cost per unit for each construction activity. This can be based on historical data, market rates, or industry benchmarks. For instance, the cost per square foot for painting or the cost per linear foot for electrical wiring.

3. Measure the quantities of each unit involved in the project. Multiply the quantities by the corresponding unit rates to calculate the labor costs for each construction activity.

4. Sum up the labor costs for all construction activities to determine the total labor cost for the project.

Unit pricing simplifies labor cost calculations by using standardized rates, making it easier to estimate and compare labor costs across different projects or activities. However, it requires accurate measurement and consistent unit rates.

3. Square Foot Method: Area-Based Estimation

The square foot method is commonly used for estimating labor costs in projects where the area of construction is a primary factor. This method is particularly applicable to tasks such as flooring installation, painting, or tiling. 

1. Determine the labor rate per square foot for the specific construction activity. This can be based on historical data, market rates, or industry standards.

2. Measure the area of the construction task in square footage. For example, the area of a room for flooring installation or the area of a wall for painting.

3. Multiply the labor rate per square foot by the measured area to calculate the labor cost for the construction task.

4. Sum up the labor costs for all construction tasks to obtain the total labor cost for the project.

The square foot method provides a straightforward approach to estimating labor costs based on the area of construction. It is efficient for tasks where the area is a primary determinant of labor requirements.

4. Rule of Two: Quick Estimation

The Rule of Two is a simple estimation method used to quickly estimate labor costs based on the total project cost.

1. Determine the labor cost as a percentage of the total project cost. This ratio can vary based on project complexity, industry standards, or historical data.

2. Multiply the total project cost by the labor ratio to obtain the estimated labor cost.

The Rule of Two provides a quick estimation of labor costs based on the overall project cost. It is useful for initial budgeting or high-level estimations, but it may not provide the same level of accuracy as the other methods discussed.

Calculating Labor Hours and Labor Burden

Calculating labor costs in construction requires considering not only the labor hours but also the labor burden. Understanding the importance of these two elements is essential for accurate cost estimation and effective resource management. 

Labor Hours

Calculating labor hours provides insights into the amount of time required to complete specific tasks or activities within a construction project. 

  • Labor hours help in estimating the labor cost accurately by multiplying the hours with the appropriate labor rates. It ensures that the project budget is aligned with the actual time required to complete the work.
  • Calculating labor hours enables efficient resource allocation. By knowing the labor hours required for each task, construction professionals can assign the right number of workers and avoid overstaffing or understaffing.
  • Labor hours estimation allows for better scheduling and time management. Project managers can create realistic timelines, set milestones, and identify critical paths based on the estimated labor hours for each activity.

Labor Burden

In addition to labor hours, calculating labor burden is equally important. Labor burden refers to the indirect costs associated with employing workers beyond their wages or salaries. These costs can include payroll taxes, benefits, insurance, and other expenses. 

  • Labor burden accounts for the additional expenses incurred by the employer, providing a comprehensive view of the total labor cost associated with each worker.
  • Calculating labor burden ensures that all indirect costs are factored into pricing and bidding processes. This helps construction companies determine the right markup and avoid underestimating costs.
  • Understanding labor burden allows for better profitability analysis. By comparing labor costs to project revenues, construction professionals can assess the profitability of individual projects and make informed decisions.

To simplify the calculation of labor burden and labor hours, Workyard offers a free labor burden calculator that considers various factors such as taxes, benefits, insurance, and other costs associated with labor. This tool helps construction businesses accurately determine the true cost of their workforce, allowing for better financial planning and decision-making. 

Track & Reduce Labor Costs With Workyard

In this section, we’ll go over a few strategies and best practices to help construction professionals effectively manage labor costs using software solutions.

1. Get an App To Track Your Employee Hours

Accurately tracking employee hours is the first step toward improving labor costs and ensuring compliance. 

Investing in a time tracking app can enable construction companies to perform precise recording of regular time, overtime, and break time for each employee. It eliminates manual timekeeping errors and ensures accurate calculation of hours worked.

Additionally, advanced time tracking software can automatically calculate overtime hours based on customizable rules and regulations. This eliminates the need for manual overtime calculations and reduces errors.

With a GPS time-tracking app like Workyard, you can attribute hours to specific projects and job sites. This data helps in understanding the productivity and costs associated with each. 

2. Track Your Labor Costs in Real-Time

Transitioning to a time tracking app enables real-time monitoring of labor costs. This provides valuable visibility into where your money is going and helps identify areas for improvement.

By reviewing labor costs in real-time, you can analyze which projects and employees are driving the highest labor costs. This information helps in identifying inefficiencies and making informed decisions to improve cost management.

Additionally, it allows you to monitor labor costs against the allocated budget. It helps you identify potential budget overruns early on and take corrective actions promptly.

With a real-time labor tracking app like Workyard, you can accurately track the time spent on each project. This data provides an audit trail that ensures accurate billing to clients for any overages, as permitted by your contracts.

3. Build Job Cost Reports To Analyze Your Spending

Creating job cost reports allows you to analyze your spending and identify areas where your company may be overspending. This analysis helps you make informed decisions to reduce labor costs. 

Throughout a project, you can generate job cost reports and compare them with your initial quotes or estimates. This comparison helps you identify any discrepancies and determine whether you are staying on target with your budget.

Job cost reports also help in pinpointing specific areas where you may be experiencing cost overruns. By analyzing these reports, you can identify the root causes of overages and implement corrective measures to prevent future occurrences.

Workyard offers robust reporting capabilities, including job cost reports, which provide construction professionals with detailed insights into their spending.

The Bottom Line on Construction Labor Costs

Throughout this guide, we’ve explored the intricacies of labor costs in construction, discussed various methods for calculating and reducing labor costs, and highlighted emerging technologies that have the potential to shape the future of the industry. 

Are you ready to take control of your labor costs? Sign up for a free trial of Workyard today.

With Workyard’s comprehensive suite of construction management tools, including time tracking, labor tracking, and reporting features, you can streamline your labor cost management processes, optimize resource allocation, and drive profitability in your construction projects.

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