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Weather looks to be factor in February’s decline in trucking jobs

Convoy’s Terrazas sees evidence of Mother Nature contributing to unusual decrease

Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

The earlier report on the unemployment numbers from FreightWaves can be found here. 

The decline in February U.S. trucking employment from January, which is in the opposite direction of most January to February changes, might have been as a result of some historically bad weather. 

That is the conclusion of Aaron Terrazas, the director of economic research at Convoy. Terrazas regularly comments on the monthly unemployment report.

The employment report for February reported that seasonally adjusted trucking jobs declined to 1,475,700 jobs, a drop of 4,000 from January. But the January report was revised upward by 4,300 jobs from what was reported last month. The end result is that the number of trucking jobs in February was 300 jobs more than what was thought January jobs were when they were first reported four weeks ago.

“Trucking firms lost 4,000 (seasonally adjusted) jobs, though that is probably overstated by about 1,500 due to weather-related distortions and weather-adjusted job losses in the trucking industry were closer to 2,500,” Terrazas said. 

Even with a strong overall number, with the U.S. gaining 379,000 jobs, Terrazas said the weather impact was real. “Winter storms across much of the country in mid-February clearly weighed on the labor market, potentially to the tune of tens of thousands of jobs,” he wrote. “These weather effects are transitory, so any long-term implications of today’s report should be read with due caution.”

Jason Miller, a professor of supply chain logistics at Michigan State, has dived into the data on a subscector basis. Looking at where employment is compared to January of last year, when total employment in the trucking and transportation sector was greater than it is today — 1,522,800 in January 2020 versus 1,475,700 today — Miller noted in an email to FreightWaves that LTL employment is down 1.8% from the first month of 2020. In the long-haul truckload sector, it’s 3.8% less. In the long-haul specialized sector, it’s down 3.7%.

“Importantly, these lines have stayed relatively parallel on the chart, suggesting carriers aren’t aggressively adding employee drivers in these sectors,” he said. 

He added that employment in the general freight, local carriers classification is up 1.6% from January 2020. 

(Chart: FreightWaves SONAR. Employment in the trucking industry has still not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, indicating persistent capacity constraints.)

The monthly data showed some other figures that appeared to reflect a weakness in the trucking market even as other data points to continuing strength, including a continuation of pay increases. 

The average hourly earnings in the truck transportation sector showed a decrease between December and January, declining to $26.88 per hour from $27.11. (The wage figures are a month behind the employment numbers.) Weekly hours declined to 41 hours from 42 hours in December. However, historically, there is a dropoff in trucking activity between those two months.  

For the subcategory that includes nonsupervisory employees, the decline was to $24.98 from $25.25. Hours slipped to 41.3 from 42.3.

But even as workers were getting paid less in January, the costs in the sector rose. The PPI for the truck transportation sector rose to 153.7 from 151.4. (The PPI data also is available just through January.)

Another notable decline was in employment in the warehouse sector. That area with scorching growth posted an infrequent decline, drooping slightly to 1,416,200 seasonally adjusted jobs from 1,417,300 jobs. But even with that drop, the sector has added 88,500 jobs since February 2020. Average hourly earnings for nonsupervisory employees rose to $18.50 from $18.31. Despite that, the PPI in that sector dropped to 110.4 from 110.7.

Couriers and messengers saw continuation of job growth in that sector. The seasonally adjusted job total of 1,030,300 was a significant increase from 1,021,300 a month earlier. It is also well above the 882,800 jobs of just a year ago. But earnings fell between December and January to $20.31 from $21.12. 

Despite that, the PPI in the couriers and messengers sector rose to 253.9 in February from 242.1 in January. 

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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.