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The numbers behind April’s nearly 90,000 job losses in trucking

With a staggering 88,000-plus jobs lost in the trucking sector in April, the question becomes whether the change is temporary or more structural.

Since trucking is an industry in which barriers to entry and exit are so low, calling anything a “structural” change is always a bit risky. One need only look back at the wailing of 2018 that a driver shortage had the possibility to seriously cramp the nation’s economy for a long time to come. The Outbound Tender Rejection Index in SONAR, the leading indicator of trucking capacity, stood at 25.65% at its spring 2018 peak. More recently, it’s been under 3%.

Everybody expected a big decline in the number of jobs; the question was just how big. The answer: very.

In the truck transportation segment in Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, 1,435,600 jobs were reported in April. That was down 88,300 from the prior month. It had not been that low since November 2014. The number of jobs had not been less than 1.5 million since December 2018. The second-biggest decline in the number of jobs since 2013 was in March 2013, when the sector lost 9,000 jobs.

Tim Hindes, the CEO of Stay Metrics, a company that studies job patterns and retention, said he saw the path to the numbers released Friday all way back in mid-March. Describing his client base as a “diverse cross section of carriers,” Hindes referred back to Monday, March 16, which was pretty much the first week when it was clear to the nation that life was about to become very different.

“We heard from 10% of our clients [that morning] needing to pause the [StayMetrics] program,” he said in an email to FreightWaves. “These were fuel haulers, food distributors to the restaurant industry, new car haulers, etc. We saw all the sectors whose drivers hit the ranks of the unemployed that week.”

The figures from BLS are not all truck drivers. As FreightWaves Market Expert and Market Analyst  Zach Strickland said, “I’m guessing a lot of these jobs are back-office positions, not drivers.” 

The fact is that truck drivers don’t account for even 30% of the sector. In the truck transportation sector at the end of 2019, the BLS broke down the categories as follows: bus and truck mechanics and diesel specialists, 36.5%; supervisors and managers, 9.5%; laborers and freight movers, 27%; truck drivers, heavy and tractor-trailer, 18.16%; and truck drivers, light or delivery services, 8.2%.

The monthly employment numbers do not break down specific job categories. That comes a month later.

That means that the monthly report issued last week did have figures for March under the Truck Transportation heading, with 1,523,900 jobs. The breakdown: general freight trucking-local, 275,000 jobs; general freight trucking-long distance, 780,600 jobs (further broken down by truckload, 525,200 jobs, and LTL, 255,300); used household and office goods moving, 96,000 jobs; other specialized trucking-local, 233,700 jobs; and other specialized trucking-long-distance, 138,800 jobs.

In March, the number of truckload drivers was down 4,600 jobs and LTL drivers were down 1,300 jobs from the prior month. The total number of truck transportation jobs — 1,523,900 — was down 3,400, with scattered gains in other categories offsetting the TL and LTL job loss.

Though specific data on the number of driver jobs that disappeared in April is still a month away, Strickland said “most companies will not fire drivers since they churn themselves at such a higher rate. A lot of the smaller guys will just park their trucks.”

Despite that “higher rate” of churn, US Xpress CEO Eric Fuller said recently that churn in the industry had definitely declined. “The last six weeks… we could probably go back 10-plus years and we probably haven’t had a period of four to six weeks where we’ve seen our turnover where it is right now,” Fuller said on the company’s first-quarter earnings call with analysts April 30.

Hindes said the big drop in employed drivers likely came out of the nonessential services that he saw in the ranks of his clients who were pulling back. “I’m betting the majority of drivers that hit the [unemployed] ranks were with carriers supporting nonessential or companies directly affected by a shutdown,” he said.

He also said he doubted the drop in drivers came from any significant exiting of the market by independent owner-operators, many of whom are blaming their current plight on brokers. “[Owner-operators] can’t afford to stay home,” Hindes said. “They have to keep running the iron regardless of price so they either went out of business during this or are breathing underwater.”

Anthony Smith, FreightWaves chief economist, noted that among the job losses, flatbed drivers were likely to be particularly hard hit.

“Flatbed operators are getting walloped,” Smith said. Industrial weakness that was already prevalent in late 2019 did not ease, “and now has been amplified by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Production came to a halt over the last few weeks, and the forward-looking new orders are not showing that there is a strong recovery imminent.”


  1. Stephen Webster

    In Ontario Canada many small trucking companies and owner ops with their own authority are being pushed out of business= Some of the mid sized trucking companies 40 to 500 trucks are getting a wage subsidy and haul cheaper freight . We need minimum freight rates and help with insurance costs for small transaction companies in Canada under 200 employees . Many bus transportation taxi smaller trucking companies are being pushed out of business. 5195239586,

    1. Jason Miller

      Bob, it’s great to hear that you are getting plenty of job offers from carriers. However, extrapolating your experience to a sector employing over 1 million people seems a bit extreme. I’ve worked and interacted with folks at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and can say they are absolute professionals who know what they are doing. As such, I trust their number to be approximately correct.

      I would also like to point out that the driver shortage is coming from the ATA; the BLS published an academic article last year that challenged arguments there is a driver shortage (as shortages are formally defined in economics). I’ve likewise published academic research on the employment dynamics in the TL sector and find that the market for TL drivers behaves like a normal labor market should. The ATA’s shortage numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt given the methodology used to estimate these figures.

      1. Eric Cameron

        The problem with your government numbers is that you look at the drivers as a whole, it is true there is no overall driver shortage.

        But you must keep in mind that companies like swift or J.B. hunt can you run out a driver from scratch in about 5 weeks of training .

        The real driver shortage is in areas like chem tank, heavy haul, over dem and many other specialty haulage work that requires several years of investment into a true professional driver before he or she is completely competent in there jobs.

        That is the driver shortage we face. Let’s face it, you don’t even have to be able to speak English to be a frieght hauler these days, how can these people take and relay instructions when loading and transporting something that is 150 thousand pounds, stands 17 feet tall and is 93 feet long, that’s a wind turbine propeller.

        Just my 2 cent on the subject

  2. Jason Miller

    Interesting, I’m getting different numbers when I look at the BLS’ data under the “Industries at a Glance: Truck Transportation: NAICS 484” tab. Specifically, if you scroll down to the “Employment by Occupation” section for the 2019 data, the breakdowns on percentage terms are as follows:

    Bus and truck mechanics and diesel engine specialists: 4.8%
    First-line supervisors/managers of transportation and material-moving machine and vehicle operators: 3.6%
    Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand: 10.5%
    Truck drivers, heavy and tractor-trailer: 76.7%
    Truck drivers, light or delivery services: 4.4%

    This breakdown would suggest that Class 8 drivers are the majority of the sector’s employment.

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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.