Rebounding of Construction Industry Slow to Come to Chicago

Lou Cerny says he’s read all the recent stories heralding the resurrection of the construction industry.

But the vice president and project manager for Chicago-based Arlington Glass says he just hasn’t witnessed any such renaissance just yet in the Windy City. In fact, things have been far from that, he says.

“There seems to be a little uptick in construction, mainly remodeling/tenant relocation, etc., and some stores,” Cerny says. “Public schools are gearing up for summer construction and some universities as well, but the volume is nothing earth-shattering, considering the number of bidders we see on open bids lately.”

His pessimism is counter to the rosier industry forecasts as of late that have projected a continued spike in construction spending and employment. Ken Simonson, the chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), recently went as far as to say that he anticipates the construction industry adding as many as 300,000 jobs in 2014.

Cerny, however, isn’t buying, citing the still prevalent low profit margins and slowed down demand coming with the advent of winter.

“Three hundred thousand new jobs for 2014?” he asked. “Assuming that we are looking at about 45 states, for the most part, that sounds like a lot, but, if you read the current unemployment and more importantly underemployment numbers, we will still be in the hole, considering that average salary has gone down about $3,000 per worker, not considering inflation at all. If each of the 300,000 jobs averages $50,000 annually, that is $1.5 billion. That’s not much, considering the new budget and spending increases. The hole doubles each day at this rate.”

One doesn’t have to look far to find the problems still plaguing the construction sector and the ancillary fields such as the glass industry that depend on it. One of the city’s oldest glaziers confirmed as much. Chicago Glass Co., a family-run business that first opened in 1924, recently shuttered its doors for good, according to a representative who answered the phone at the company headquarters.

Not everybody in Chicago’s glass industry, however, shares that gloomy outlook, even as the winter slowdown approaches. Kevin Byczek, a salesman with Torstenson Glass, a glass distributor, says demand for his company’s services first began picking up early in 2013 and has remained steady ever since.

“We seem to be fairly busy right now,” he says. “I think we had a few months that were pretty slow, but most of the year, we were going pretty strong.”

A woman who only identified herself as “Michelle” answered the phone at Chicago Tempered Glass Co. and echoed similar thoughts, saying that business has been “very good” over the last six months and kept their company “really busy.” She declined to give her last name.

Cerny says he’d love to see the reason for the giddy optimism shared by so many others, but just hasn’t yet.

“I just do not see [the rebounding of the construction industry] occurring,” he says, “at least not in the Chicago metro area market.”

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