In a bull market, RETS Associates principal Kent Elliott said the CRE unemployment rate has been — in some roles and sectors — even better than zero, much healthier than the national rate.
By: Alexandra Marvar
While some roles and sectors in the commercial real estate industry are seeing furloughs and layoffs and some employees are finding that good job interviews are few and far between, the industry overall may be in much better shape than the national average.
Of course, good data is hard to find, but according to RETS Associates principal Kent Elliott, the CRE unemployment rate is much lower than the overall unemployment rate, even in the midst of a pandemic. In fact, Elliott told Multi-Housing News in a recent interview that the rate in CRE could be as low as a third of the national rate.
“Currently, overall unemployment has spiked to around 13% and the CRE unemployment rate stands at roughly 4%,” he told MHN at the start of July. “That figure is the same as what the broadest sector of the economy stood at when it was healthy.
“You can’t find this data with the Bureau of Labor Statistics or anything like that,” he told Bisnow. “It’s just the sense that we have, as recruiters, being focused just on real estate, on where we think things are at this point in time.”
He said RETS is working with about half as many placements as it was last year at this time.
“The first quarter [of 2020] was rock-solid,” Elliott said. “The second quarter was not as good. The sense is we’re at about 50% of where we were last year at this point.”
Across the RETS team of 15 recruiters, “nobody is at full capacity compared to last year,” he said.
But this period of flagging activity follows a national unemployment rate of just 3.6% as of January 2020, at which point Elliott estimates the rate for CRE, was again much better: somewhere between 2% and, in some sectors and geographies, as low as negative 2% — meaning more jobs were available than there were skilled candidates to place.
Starting from such a strong position, even with the ravaging economic repercussions of the coronavirus, the industry would have a long way to fall.
CRE recruiters outside of RETS are divided on the 4% theory. Some think the estimate is too low given the extent of the downsizing they have witnessed. Others say it seems about right, based on the work piling up on their and their colleagues’ desks. It varies by job function (high-paying, high-risk positions are being cut more readily and hired more hesitantly now) as well as by city.
For example, the May unemployment rate in Las Vegas hovered around 30%, whereas in the D.C. metropolitan area it was more like 9% and in Lincoln, Nebraska, just 5%.
When it comes to pinning down the sprawling industry of commercial real estate, there is no clear data, as residential real estate is often lumped in, skewing the picture. According to data from the BLS, the real estate industry at large in the U.S. showed real estate at 3.3% unemployment in March, spiking as high as 8.9% by May, and then dropping to 7.4%.
However, CRE measures up against the national unemployment rate, searches happening at a 50% capacity are a shared experience.
CRE-focused recruiter Carly Glova, resident and executive recruiter of Southern California-based firm Building Careers, said 2019 was the firm’s best year to date, both in terms of revenue and number of placements, and in Q1, it was on track to surpass that in 2020. But over the past several months, the open roles it is managing have also seen a decline of about half.
“You compound COVID with the fact that now we’re in July,” Elliott said. “July and December are the two slowest hiring periods, so now you’ve got a double whammy. Half of [the slowdown] is COVID and half of it, it could be just normalcy.”
Of course, what may have been normal in July of last year is far from normal now. The Real Estate Roundtable 2020 Q2 Economic Sentiment Index registered a score of 38, confirming a dive in the industry’s read of market conditions.
“Although our Q2 survey results show there is hope for improved conditions within the next year, there are significant concerns that other sectors of the industry could be dragged down if jobs don’t rebound and government assistance tapers off,” Real Estate Roundtable President and CEO Jeffrey DeBoer told GlobeSt.
Elliott said hiring interest is like a spigot, and as the world tries to regain its footing amid chaos, the flow remains in flux.
“I can feel all these things happening, almost from week to week,” he said. “This week, Wednesday morning, I had four calls with four new clients, discussing four new search opportunities. I had my recruiter from Phoenix on one of those calls, Charlotte on one, Denver on another and Newport on another. That’s a good sign.”