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BLS: Cost of truck transportation saw record increase from September to October

Other highlights from the report: A divergence between seasonal and nonseasonal job changes

Is the truckload market about to suffer a major downturn? (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Among the data that poured out of the monthly employment report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday, one number stood out: The soaring cost of securing trucking transportation.

The Producer Price Index data runs a month behind the general employment report, which showed truck transportation jobs rising 5,100 jobs on a seasonally adjusted basis in November, coming in at 1,521,300 jobs. That figure is for the jobs covered under the NAICS 484 code. 

The Producer Price Index data is for October. It was up 2.9% compared to September. On an annualized basis, that is more than 40%. In the history of the truck transportation PPI going back to the start of 2011, that percentage gain in one month is easily the largest. The next four biggest gains all took place in 2021, covering the first four months of the year. February was the largest, with a gain of 1.88%. 

The PPI for truck transportation now stands at 172.3. Two years ago, before the impact of the pandemic, it was 146.2; a year ago, it was 148.4.

The overall impression of the truck transportation data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is of a market that remains strong by many measures, with the PPI number likely reflecting that. 

The jobs number, in particular, besides rising relatively strongly in November even as the overall jobs increase was considered somewhat disappointing, is now up on a seasonally adjusted basis by 18,200 jobs since August. 

While the seasonal figure showed a large increase in truck transportation jobs, the not seasonally adjusted number did not. It was down 800, to 1,530,300 jobs. 

Jason Miller, associate professor at the Eli Broad College of Business at Michigan State University, said the not seasonally adjusted numbers serve as the basis for the more closely watched seasonally adjusted figures. Looking at those figures, Miller noted that the not seasonally adjusted numbers came in well above what the BLS had expected. 

“Not seasonally adjusted employment for headline truck transportation declined by 800 in November from October,” Miller said in an email to FreightWaves. “However, the BLS was expecting a decline of 6,400, which is why the seasonally adjusted gain was 5,600. As such, trucking companies did not let workers go at the normal rate we would expect with seasonality.”

So while the not seasonally adjusted number may look like a sign of weakness, Miller’s analysis suggests it was actually an indication of strength.

Aaron Terrazas, director of economic research at Convoy, also noted the difference in the directions of seasonal and nonseasonal data, and said that what he called “distorted seasonality might be inflating the figures.”

Terrazas said recent changes in the BLS methodology shifted the adjustment between seasonal and not seasonal back to a pre-pandemic basis. “With the holiday hiring surge in freight starting earlier this year, seasonality has become flatter and fatter — starting earlier but peaking lower,” Terrazas said in an email to FreightWaves.

Among other notable numbers in the report:

— Workers in the truck transportation sector as defined by BLS are working relatively long hours. The preliminary average hours worked for all employees in October, the latest month for which data is available, was again 42.1 hours, the second consecutive month at that figure. And while the hours worked was more than that for April through August, the 42.1 hours remains higher than every month in 2019 and 2020. A number above 42 hours per week prior to this year shows up in December 2018. For production and nonsupervisory employees, which would include drivers, the total has been above 43 hours for six of the past seven months. Prior to this year, in the 10 years of data provided by the BLS, there had not been a single month when that figure came in above 43.

— If there are hiring problems in the market, they don’t seem to be showing up in the warehousing and courier sectors. Couriers added 26,800 jobs, rising to just under 1.1 million. However, with pandemic-related cutbacks, the number of total jobs isn’t that far above where it was a year ago, when on a seasonally adjusted basis it was 1.063 million. Warehousing added 8,800 jobs, up to 1,508,000 jobs. That sector now stands at about 73,000 jobs more than where it was a year ago.

— Rail transportation continues to hang in around the 143,000 jobs figure. For the month, rail reported 142,500 jobs, compared to 143,300 jobs a year ago. In November 2014, the rail sector was at more than 200,000 jobs. This year, the number of jobs reported in the rail sector has been in a tight range between 142,200 and 144,500.

— While there is no unemployment rate cited for the individual sectors, like truck transportation, the BLS does report an unemployment rate for the broader transportation and warehousing sector. It shot up to 6.1%, a full 100 basis points from a month earlier. The only sector that reported a drop in jobs under that umbrella group was transit and ground passenger transportation, suggesting that transportation and warehousing, like the national rate as a whole, saw an increased number of job seekers. The difference is that the national unemployment rate, despite that larger pool of workers, fell to 4.2% from 4.6% in October. But the unemployment rate for transportation and warehousing rose. 

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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.