December’s job gains in the truck transportation sector reported Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics were one of the lowest since the industry began to climb out of the losses inflicted by the pandemic.
They also marked a notable benchmark: There were more truck transportation jobs in December than there were two years ago, the first time since the pandemic hit that notable data point was recorded. However, the context of that shift is that in December 2019, truck transportation jobs took a hit of more than 3,000 jobs from a month earlier, putting them at 1,521,400 jobs. They finished the year at their low point.
The December 2021 seasonally adjusted total was 1,523,300 jobs. February 2020 jobs — the last pre-pandemic month — were 1,516,200 jobs. The U.S. has now recorded two consecutive months above that level.
The figure for December was up just 300 jobs from the prior month. Since jobs began rebounding after the huge declines of March and April of last year, the increase of 300 jobs was the third smallest, behind the two months when declines were recorded.
The small seasonally adjusted jobs gain in December stood in stark contrast to the prior six months, when monthly job gains ranged from 4,700 jobs to 8,700 jobs.
More eye-popping was the number of not seasonally adjusted jobs. That declined 10,000 positions.
Jason Miller, an associate professor of logistics at Michigan State University, said the big divergence between the seasonal and not seasonal jobs numbers was a category of trucking jobs that doesn’t impact long-haul over-the-road driving: Specialized, local truck transportation is the name of the BLS category.
Miller, in an email to FreightWaves, said the BLS model estimates that “in the absence of any true trend, truck transportation employment would have declined by 10,300 employees in December (hence when jobs declined by 10,000, there is a seasonally adjusted gain of 300).”
The basis for that estimate is that the BLS category Miller referred to is heavily impacted by mining and agricultural movement, which is drastically slowing by December. “This seasonality makes good sense, because quarrying activity is highly seasonal, with a low point in December-February,” he said.
Miller was more excited about figures that lag by a month for the long-distance truckload sector. That category showed a jump of 5,100 jobs between October and November. “This places employment in this sector down just 6,400 from November 2019,” Miller wrote. “And this doesn’t count the transition of drivers to self-employed.”
The over-the-road category for LTL transportation is down 900 employees from two years ago, after six months of steady increases.
With a full year of data under the belt, the slow growth in December masks just how many jobs the truck transportation sector added this year. Jobs in the sector in December 2020 came in at 1,478,900. The figure reported for December 2021 was 44,400 jobs higher.
The latest report also revised upward November jobs, to 1,523,000 from 1,521,300, an upward move of 1,700 jobs. A final revision to October took that month down by 400 jobs to 1,515,300, so the December figure is now 8,000 jobs more than in September.
Aaron Terrazas, director of research at Convoy, noted on his blog that the data for the employment report was collected during the week of Dec. 12. It therefore might not have captured any impact from the surge of the omicron variant, which sped up as the month progressed.
Miller said going forward that one of the biggest issues in adding to fleet capacity is going to be finding equipment, after what might now be viewed as a successful several-month period of being able to expand workforce size despite all the hurdles present in that effort.
Other highlights from the report:
- The cost of truck transportation continues to climb. The Producer Price Index in the truck transportation sector was up 1.1% between October and November. The 12-month increase in the PPI for truck transportation was 15.8%.
- Warehouses managed to keep adding workers. That category added 5,000 workers, rising to 1,508,500 jobs on a seasonally adjusted basis. A year ago, that figure was 1,421,200, marking a 6.1% increase over the course of the year. But there is an enormous gap between the not seasonally jobs recorded by the BLS and the seasonally adjusted figures. The not seasonally adjusted figures recorded 1,554,900 jobs in the sector, a difference of more than 46,000 jobs. The December gain in not seasonally adjusted jobs was 3,800 jobs.
- Average hourly earnings in the truck transportation sector for all employees fell between October and November, to $27.64 from $27.75. For production and nonsupervisory employees, the decline was 1 cent, to $25.83. Weekly hours for the production/nonsupervisory workers declined to 42.8 hours. It is a fairly significant decline from the 43.5 hours in August, which had been the highest number ever recorded in the history of the data series.