This morning’s construction work figures will get the gloomsters rattling their worry beads ahead of next week’s first quarter economic growth figures.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures released this morning show a larger than forecast fall in construction work done in the March quarter, reversing the surprise rise (revised upwards as well) in the December quarter.

The December estimate was revised from 1.7% growth to 2.3% in the latest figures. September’s estimate had been revised in February to a rise of 5.5%, emphasising the strength of construction activity through 2008.

That original 1.7% rise and better figures for investment helped soften the impact of the domestic slowdown on growth in the December quarter which fell 0.5% after a 0.1% rise in the September quarter.

The latest figures will prompt economists to prepare for a fall in March quarter GDP of between of 0.3% and 0.6%. Private capital spending figures tomorrow will help add more information, as will figures on Monday on inventories, trade and government spending, which are both due out on Tuesday.

This morning, the ABS said the seasonally adjusted estimate for total construction work done fell 3.7%, to $34,465.8 million, in the March quarter, following a revised rise of 2.3% in the December quarter.

That revised increase for the December quarter accentuated the extent of the fall in the March quarter, which was well above market forecasts for a 2.7% drop. Goldman Sachs JBWere went for a 4% fall and some economists had falls of 6% and more pencilled in.

The ABS said in the release that the seasonally adjusted estimate of building work fell 4.4% to $17,424.9m, in the March quarter, with residential building falling 6.0% to $9,853.1 million and non-residential building off 2.1%, to $7,571.8 million, confirming that the first home buyers impact has yet to appear in the economy generally.

That will emerge from this quarter onwards.

“The seasonally adjusted estimate for engineering work done fell 3.0%, to $17,040.8 million, in the March quarter and also ended a strong upturn through 2008 in this sector.”

The ABS figures show that the slowdown in activity in Queensland and Western Australia were the main factors behind the fall, and that’s where the loss of contracts, mine developments and associated infrastructure has been more deeply felt than in other states.

It’s also where unemployment has risen fastest in the past 9 months.

The downturn in activity in this sector and in resources can be seen from the latest figures in skilled vacancies which fell another 7% in May from April, according to new figures from the Department of Employment.

The department’s Skilled Vacancies Index was 35 points or around 62.6% lower in May this year than in May 2008.