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Update: Truck transportation job numbers rising toward 2019 figures

Also in the monthly report: Surge in warehouse employment continues; cost of truck transportation still climbing

Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

For the fifth consecutive month, jobs in the truck transportation sector posted solid gains from the prior month, and total employment is starting to close in on pre-pandemic levels of two years ago.

After a Bureau of Labor Statistics report that seasonally adjusted jobs totaled 1,515,500 for October, jobs in that sector are now running just 9,100 jobs less than where they were two years ago. 

The narrowing of that gap has been substantial. At the start of the year, it stood at 48,100 after comparing jobs in January 2021 and January 2019. A month later, it rose to 51,700 jobs.

But in the past few months in particular, the gap has tightened. Between the June report and the latest report, the gap has declined sequentially to 44,300 jobs in June, 38,300 in July, 24,500 in August, 15,600 in September and now 9,100.

The 7,900-job increase in truck transportation jobs between September and October is the second-highest in a five-month string of increases that have brought jobs from 1,482,000 in May up to the latest level.

Aaron Terrazas, director of economic research at Convoy who provides commentary on his company’s blog each month upon the release of the data, noted that the gap between now and two years earlier doesn’t account for independent owner-operators. “Accounting for growth in the owner-operator (self-employed) segment — which is not included in the headline BLS numbers — industry employment is now slightly above where it stood on the eve of the pandemic,” he wrote. “Among available drivers, capacity has clearly shifted toward the owner-operator segment.”

He also noted that equipment shortages have the potential to impact hiring plans. “Over the past year, the primary constraint to trucking capacity growth has see-sawed between labor and equipment (truck and trailer) availability,” Terrazas wrote. “With new truck and trailer production backlogs steadily lengthening, it will be increasingly logical for trucking companies to begin to push out hiring plans further and further into the future.”

The growth in jobs over the past several months is having only minimal impact on wages. Wage data released by the BLS lags the general employment data by a month. But September hourly wages for production and nonsupervisory employees in the truck transportation sector rose just 2 cents compared to August, to $25.63 an hour. After a jump between June and July to $25.62 from $25.28, wages have stagnated.

What has not stagnated is the cost of employing truck transportation services. The producer price index for the sector rose 1.1% between August and September to 167.5. (The PPI data lags the general employment data by a month). Since its trough in May of last year, that index has risen more than 19%.

The seasonally adjusted increase in jobs was dwarfed by the figures reported for not seasonally adjusted employment. Between September and October, they rose to 1,531,600 jobs compared to 1,520,600 jobs in September, a jump of 11,000.

The most significant gains in the logistics field came in the warehousing and storage sector. October seasonally adjusted figures almost surpassed 1.5 million for the first time, coming in at 1,499,400 jobs. That was up more than 20,000 jobs from September and more than 35,000 since August. In the past year, that category has added more than 92,000 jobs.

“A decade ago, there were two trucking industry workers for every one warehousing/storage industry worker; today, the ratio is nearly one-to-one,” Terrazas wrote. “If recent trends continue, the number of warehousing/storage workers will surpass the number of trucking industry workers by the end of 2021.”

Jason Miller, an assistant professor of logistics at Michigan State, took an even longer view of warehouse jobs. Going back to October 2017, he said, warehouses are up 441,500 employees, a gain of 41.1%. 

“I can’t help but think one reason firms may be encountering challenges with hiring warehousing workers is that local labor markets are reaching carrying capacity regarding the number of workers who are willing to perform these jobs,” he wrote in an email to FreightWaves. “These data also increase my skepticism that the market for warehouse workers is broken.”

Courier jobs also climbed. Seasonally adjusted jobs were up 10,000, to 1,055,200. But they took a big hit between August and September, and while the October numbers are higher than the previous month, that drop in September means that courier jobs still have not recovered to the final August level of 1,060,100.

Among other numbers in the monthly report:

— The rebound in other parts of the logistics chain is showing no signs of impacting rail hiring. Seasonally adjusted jobs in October were 141,900, up just 100 from a month before. A year ago, when the pandemic was in full swing, that number was 144,400 jobs.

— In the truck transportation sector, where average hours worked per week have been climbing, the numbers for September took a step back. For all employees, they dropped to 42 hours in September from 42.5 a month earlier. For production and nonsupervisory employees, they were 43 hours, down from 43.5 hours. The figures on that category lag the monthly report.

— There may be help wanted signs out everywhere, but the BLS reported that the unemployment rate in the entire transportation and warehousing category was 5.1% in October. That is down from 7.3% in July.

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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.