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Employment follow: Run of increasing truck transportation jobs nears 2 years

Data open to interpretation but overall continues to speak to strength in sector

Photo: Shutterstock

The impact of last month’s huge adjustments in many of the base case numbers for the monthly employment report can be seen in just how many months the truck transportation sector has added jobs.

Since the pandemic-low employment levels of April 2020, the monthly employment report produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics has been mostly pointed higher. However, there have been months when the BLS reported that truck transportation jobs had declined. 

The report for January issued in early February was the first in which the BLS had made two significant adjustments in its base assumptions. One was annual and another was once in a decade as a result of the census. In part, as a result of those adjustments, the month-to-month comparison has pointed higher ever since. 

Looking over the results of those adjustments, and with recent regular adjustments for the two prior months of the report (December and January), reveals the strength of the industry: The truck transportation sector reported by the BLS has added jobs for 22 consecutive months.

The first month with higher numbers on a seasonally adjusted basis was May 2020, the first month to rebound off the April 2020 low. Since then, the gains have ranged from a low of just 700 jobs in January 2021 to a high of 11,500 jobs in that first post-pandemic month of May 2020. The average monthly gain has been 5,400 jobs, which coincidentally equals the increase in February over January. 

The February total of 1,549,100 jobs means that during the climb back in employment from April 2020, the truck transportation sector has added roughly 119,000 jobs.

The figures do not include independent owner-operators, whose numbers have been rising on the basis of several metrics. 

Given that the numbers are not a pure headcount but are subject to a variety of modeling tools employed by the BLS, they are always open to interpretation. For example, Aaron Terrazas, director of economic research at Convoy, said in an email to FreightWaves that the February gains of 5,400 were the strongest number for that month since 2018.

But he also noted that “all the gains came entirely from downward revisions to the January numbers.” January jobs in the truck transportation sector were originally reported at 1,549,700. But the latest report put them at 1,543,700 jobs, which means that the February number of 1,549,100 jobs is actually less than what was originally reported for January. 

“The past couple of months have really underlined what a dramatic role these regular revisions — as well as the less frequent benchmark revisions — can have in shifting our real-time interpretation of what’s happening in the freight labor market,” Terrazas wrote.

He also said February can be a “canary in a coal mine” for trucking employment in the year to come. “In years when the freight market is strong, logistics firms tend to get a head start on hiring in anticipation of late-spring volume surges; in soft-market years, February tends to be a continuation of January’s post-holiday hangover,” he said.

The overall report for three interrelated areas could be seen as showing that recruitment efforts are paying off. Besides the increase in truck transportation jobs, warehouse jobs rose by 10,700 jobs and courier jobs climbed 9,400 jobs on a seasonally adjusted basis. 

“Amid what is arguably the tightest blue-collar labor market in a generation, broad swaths of the logistics industry hoarded labor and limited seasonal layoffs this winter,” Terrazas wrote. “Not seasonally adjusted payrolls were up in trucking and in warehousing.” 

The not seasonally adjusted numbers for truck transportation rose to 1,533,100 jobs from a revised January figure of 1,529,900 jobs, a gain of 3,200 jobs. 

In other highlights from the report:

– Cost increases in truck transportation are not easing. The Producer Price Index for the truck transportation sector rose 1.5% from December to January. It is on a one-month lag from the overall employment numbers. While that is less than the 1.9% recorded for October or for the whopping 3% in November, the PPI now stands about 24% more than it was in January 2020, right before the pandemic began.

– Average hourly earnings for all truck transportation jobs rose 24 cents an hour to $27.97. That is the sixth-highest monthly increase in the last five years. 

– Despite the solid increases in trucking, warehousing and couriers, the unemployment rate for the overriding transportation and warehousing sector as defined by the BLS rose to 5.4% from 4.7%. 

– Not seasonally adjusted jobs in warehouses were up 1,100 jobs compared to the larger seasonal gain of 10,700 jobs. “This suggests warehouses didn’t let go of as many workers as they typically would,” Jason Miller, a professor at Michigan State who follows the numbers closely, said in an email to FreightWaves. 

– Rail jobs declined by 100. At 146,000 jobs, they are largely where they were in the summer of 2020 after minor up-and-down fluctuations each month. But two years ago, there were 158,900 jobs in the rail sector. 

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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.