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And now back up: Truck transportation jobs rose in October

After a big drop in September, BLS data shows hiring in trucking industry demonstrated resilience but warehouse hiring plummeted

Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

After a report a month earlier that looked like hiring in the truck transportation sector had finally exhausted itself and a shrinking of the workforce lay ahead, data for October has now turned that idea on its head.

In a sharp reversal, hiring in the truck transportation sector as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics added a whopping 13,200 jobs in October. Not only that, but the September number was revised upward a sharp 7,100 jobs to what was reported a month ago. 

An increase of 13,200 jobs in one month is the third largest in the history of BLS data going back to 2012. The two months that were larger than that occurred earlier this year. 

The end result of the new data and the changes is that first, seasonally adjusted truck transportation jobs reported by the BLS stood at 1,580,800 jobs in September. And with the upward revision of the initial September data, and then further gains in October, truck transportation jobs in October stood at 1,601,100 jobs, almost 20,000 jobs more than the initial number the BLS produced for September.

However, September’s most recent figure of 1,587,800 jobs still was less than August’s report of 1,597,400 jobs, which was not revised in the last month. The math then is that September was first reported to have dropped significantly, then it was reported to actually have dropped less and then there was the increase for October. That all added up 3,700 more truck transportation jobs in October than August.

That is not an enormous difference between August and October. But given that the report last month looked like it was signaling the end of two-plus years of almost unbroken increases in the size of the truck transportation workforce, the reduction reported last month — either in the original numbers or now the revised figures — was significant. The fact that the industry has now resumed hiring also is significant.

One subject of discussion in markets recently has been at least anecdotal evidence that some independent owner-operators, squeezed between rising diesel and other costs and falling rates, are staying behind the wheel but doing so as employee drivers, meaning those economic factors are somebody else’s problem to deal with. Drivers who are owner-operators do not show up in the BLS data, but they do show up if they move behind the wheel as an employee.

As surprising as the data was for truck transportation, the numbers for warehouse and storage were an eye-opener going the other way. Jobs in that sector plummeted to 1,742,100 jobs, down 20,000 jobs from a revised September figure. But the initial figure in September was 1,782,200 jobs, so the number of warehouse jobs is now down about 40,000 positions from where the BLS initially reported they were in September.

Notable in the warehouse figures also was the dichotomy between seasonally adjusted jobs and not seasonally adjusted data. There was a 24,900-job gap between the not seasonally adjusted and the seasonally adjusted number, far bigger than normal. That big gap resulted from the fact that on a not seasonally adjusted basis, warehouse jobs in October increased a little less than 10,000 jobs from September, but on a seasonally adjusted basis, they were down 20,000 jobs. 

On its website, the BLS said that seasonal adjustment “is a statistical technique that attempts to measure and remove the influences of predictable seasonal patterns to reveal how employment and unemployment change from month to month.”

“Over the course of a year, the size of the labor force, the levels of employment and unemployment, and other measures of labor market activity undergo fluctuations due to seasonal events including changes in weather, harvests, major holidays, and school schedules,” the BLS wrote. “Because these seasonal events follow a more or less regular pattern each year, their influence on statistical trends can be eliminated by seasonally adjusting the statistics from month to month. These seasonal adjustments make it easier to observe the cyclical, underlying trend, and other nonseasonal movements in the series.”

However, some economists have cautioned that the not seasonally adjusted numbers should not be ignored and can also reveal trends. In the case of the warehouse data, it is revealing a trend completely at odds with the seasonally adjusted figures.

In other data from the monthly BLS report:

  • Wages continue to rise in truck transportation. The hourly wage for all employees in the sector rose to $29.70, up from $29.50. For production and nonsupervisory employees, it rose more, to $28.21 from $27.88.
  • Even with that increase in wages, the Producer Price Index (PPI) for the truck transportation sector — possibly as a result of lower diesel costs — declined 0.5%.
  • The upward move in truck transportation wages contrasted with what happened in warehouses, where the wages for all employees declined 2 cents to $22.39. For production and nonsupervisory employees, it was a 5-cent decline to $21.39. The PPI in warehouses rose 0.2%. 
  • Employment levels in the rail sector continued to be a slow-moving train but one that goes backward sometimes too. There were 147,100 workers in the rail sector in October, down 100 from a month earlier. In September 2020, there were also 147,100 jobs in the sector. The highest figure during that interim was 148,100 jobs. The lowest was 143,800 jobs.

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John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.