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Jobs report: Lots of them, but more in warehousing than in trucking

‘Massive’ revision to warehouse jobs going back years takes its total above those in trucking

Photo: JIm Allen/FreightWaves

The three biggest categories in the Bureau of Labor Statistics data about workers in the supply chain — truck transportation, warehousing and couriers — have never seen as many workers as they had in January.

And in the case of warehouse workers, the BLS made huge adjustments to its estimate of workers in that sector going back several years, with the end result being that there are now clearly more workers in warehouses than there are in trucking.

All three categories posted significant gains on a seasonally adjusted basis in January compared to December, according to the monthly employment report data released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That monthly report overall showed total employment in the U.S. up 467,000 jobs, far beyond forecasts that in some cases projected a decline in employment.

Truck transportation jobs rose 7,500 jobs to 1,549,200 jobs; warehousing rose 13,400 positions to 1,728,200 jobs; and couriers and messengers were up 21,200 jobs to 1,100,600 jobs. That totals 42,100 jobs added between December and November. 

“On a seasonally adjusted basis, truck transportation, courier and messenger, and warehousing  are at record employment levels as of January 2022,” Jason Miller, an associate professor at Michigan State who watches transportation data closely, said in an email to FreightWaves. 

It is the approximately 1.72 million jobs in warehousing that has been most notable. A month ago, the BLS reported December seasonally adjusted jobs as 1,508,500. For November, it was 1,503,500 jobs. 

But after the latest revision to the model going back almost two years, the BLS reported not only the 1,728,200 warehousing jobs in January but also 1,714,800 jobs in December and 1,702,700 jobs in November.

“One thing we can feel confident in despite the survey changes is that we now know for certain that there are more warehousing and storage jobs in the U.S. than truck transportation jobs — a trend that has been gradually emerging over the past decade,” Aaron Terrazas, director of economic research at Convoy, said in an email to FreightWaves. 

Miller described the revision to the warehouse numbers as “massive” and said, “This further helps explain why the holiday season went more smoothly with this much warehousing capacity being added.” 

The overall surge in the number of workers in the sector, Miller said, calls into “question claims that transportation and warehousing providers cannot find workers.”

Truck transportation jobs previously recorded its all-time high in June 2019, at 1,540,200 jobs. But the last two months have eclipsed those numbers, though they remain preliminary estimates. The December 2021 estimate was revised downward to 1,541,700 jobs.

One big number that is not in the BLS figure: the number of owner-operators. There have been several indications recently that capacity is rising, which the truck transportation numbers seem to support as well as other data points that the number of independent owner-operators is rising as well.

For example, the business capacity owner figure in the quarterly earnings of Landstar (NASDAQ: LSTR) showed a significant year-on-year increase of 7.9%, and that number is considered a good barometer of capacity. The Outbound Tender Rejection Index in SONAR has been sliding for the last month. New grants of authority last year were running at extremely high levels, according to FTR, and that capacity may be making its way into the market. The FreightWaves Pricing Power Index is strong at 75 but has stalled and has not risen for several weeks. 

To learn more about FreightWaves SONAR, please go here.

There is a one-month lag in the BLS release of data for individual sectors within the truck transportation group. The overall truck transportation sector includes such things as local deliveries; data on over-the-road drivers is a month behind.

Miller’s monthly commentary on the data sent to FreightWaves has consistently noted that while the overall numbers have been rising, the specific figures for long distance over-the-road drivers had been lagging. But it has started to pick up, and Miller said in December it came in at 794,400. That tops the all-time high set in July 2019 by 600 drivers.

The January data for the national report was compiled using a changed model. Terrazas said the changes include annual shifts in the base list of employers that are surveyed; changes in population assumptions, which occurs once every 10 years based on Census data; and changes in the model that is used to adjust not seasonally adjusted figures and produce the more widely watched seasonal data. Those changes, he said, had a “huge effect.” 

Without them, according to Terrazas, the overall increase in jobs of 467,000 would have been a decline of 272,000 jobs. But as Terrazas noted, that does not mean the old numbers were correct and the latest numbers are incorrect. It means that the basis for determining the monthly models has been changed on the basis of updated inputs due to shifts in population and the economy. 

Other takeaways from the report:

– Terrazas has been looking at some of the underlying numbers and says trucking companies have been adding headcount in the back office at a rapid clip. He said in an email to FreightWaves that management payrolls were up 40% between the final quarter of 2019 and 2021, but driver payrolls were only up 1%. “For all the industry chatter about improving driver productivity, we probably need to have more industry conversations about back-office productivity too,” he said. Just in the last three months of 2021, total employment in the truck transportation sector rose to 1,541,700 jobs from 1,528,900 jobs. But the number of employees considered production and nonsupervisory rose only 300 jobs, to 1,340,500 jobs. 

– Another suggestion that the market may be nearing a peak is that the producer price index for the truck transportation sector rose at a more reasonable level than the torrid pace of prior months. The PPI for truck transportation in December (it has a one-month lag) was up just 0.3% sequentially from November. But the prior three months, the sequential increase was 1.5%, 1.9% and 3.3%.

– Rail jobs were steady at 146,400 jobs. That sector has fluctuated around the 144,000 to 146,000 jobs range since the middle of 2020.

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.