Carpenter Brian Donoghue estimates he has had less than 12 months of work in the past three years. As construction jobs vanished during the economic downturn, Donoghue, 33, drained his savings and retirement accounts and turned to his parents to help pay the bills.
But lately, things have started to look up. Donoghue, who lives in Brighton with a 2-year-old son and has a baby on the way, recently finished a two-month job building concrete forms for a parking garage in Brighton and just started a drywall job in Kenmore Square.
Private development has accelerated rapidly around Boston in the past year, and while many projects have not ramped up into full construction mode, workers like Donoghue are relieved to hear more jobs are on the horizon.
"It would mean I could pay rent,'' said Donoghue, who was so desperate for work that he went from job site to job site with his tools on his back. "I can actually afford to go to the store to buy milk. It's everything.''
The construction industry has been hit harder than most in the past few years, losing one in four jobs as the housing market crashed, financing dried up, and projects ground to a halt. In some trades, the jobless rate is estimated to be as high as 30 percent, compared to an overall Massachusetts unemployment of 6.9 percent.
Construction added 1,000 jobs in January, but the sector still has 1,800 fewer jobs than in the previous year, and 35,000 fewer jobs than six years ago, according to state employment data.
But several of the region's largest projects are moving forward, including a $450 million complex of apartments, stores, and offices near Fenway Park, Harvard University's effort to redevelop a huge swath of Allston, and the long-dormant Filene's property in Downtown Crossing. The combination of the Assembly Row development of apartments and stores in Somerville, Fan Pier residences and office towers on the South Boston Waterfront, and the mini-city on the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station promises upward of 10,000 jobs in coming years.
Housing specialists are also predicting improvements in the market this year as an increase in sales of existing homes prompts more homeowners to remodel. January home sales rose to their highest level since 2007, according to the Warren Group, a Boston real estate tracking firm.
"We're starting to see the seeds of a partial recovery,'' said Mark Erlich, executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, who expects the projects under construction to jump in the second half of the year. "Of course, it doesn't take much to have an improvement.''
The recovery cannot come fast enough for James McCormick. McCormick, 52, made about $20,000 last year shoveling snow, installing garage doors, and working a part-time security job, a fraction of the $70,000 he pulled in doing tile and flooring work in 2007. His 2009 and 2010 income was not much better. As a result, he lost his house and moved in with his father in Everett.
But he has started to see signs of life. Around Christmas, he landed a carpeting job at an auto dealership in Acton, and he just started another one carpeting and tiling for a friend who is selling a house in Tewskbury. He is also seeing more opportunities on Craigslist. With any luck, he said, he will soon be able to stop knocking on doors and asking: "Ma'am, would you like me to fix your front stairs for you?''
Carpenter John Cusack considers himself lucky. He managed to work about nine months out of the year during the downturn, although it was nothing like the boom years of the Big Dig. "From '96 to '05, if you could stand upright you could pretty much have a shot at working,'' he said.
Cusack, 48, has worked since the beginning of December at the Charlesview apartment and retail development in Brighton, growing "cautiously optimistic'' after seeing more projects break ground.
"When you see holes, you see a crane, you start to say OK,'' he said.
The unseasonably warm winter has also helped struggling construction workers. With no frost to hinder backhoes, no single-digit temperatures cutting into productivity, and no snow to plow off job sites, some companies have been able to keep workers on the job.
The crew at J. Derenzo Co. is about 200 strong, double its usual size at this time of year.
"Typically in the winter we have layoffs due to losing a couple days a week to rain, snow, sleet, cold,'' said David Howe, president of the Brockton-based site development company, which does blasting, excavating, and pile driving. This year, "we've been going pretty much every day.''
John Duarte, 45, a labor foreman for the Boston general contractor McCourt Construction, has hardly missed a day of road work, compared to the two or three months he is usually stuck at home in winter. The money is welcome, he said, even though the yard work and shingling projects he normally gets done during the slow season are piling up.
"My honey to-do list is just growing beyond belief right now,'' he said.