December 8, 2022

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automotive

Is latest jobs report a sign of weaker freight market?

After 21 consecutive months of increases, the number of truck transportation jobs in the United States took a downward turn in March.

The seasonally adjusted figures for total jobs in the truck transportation sector came in at 1,550,800 jobs. That marked a decline of 4,900 jobs. It’s the first time since April 2020, when the economy was collapsing due to the full-blown start of the pandemic, that the month-to-month figures showed a decline. 

There was no significant difference in March between the seasonally adjusted numbers and the not seasonally adjusted figures. The latter category, at 1,537,800 jobs, was down 7,300 jobs from February. But the February figure was revised upward significantly. It was originally reported as 1,533,100 not seasonally adjusted jobs; that was revised in the report to 1,545,100 jobs.

“March lived up to its reputation as an unlucky month for freight,” Aaron Terrazas, director of economic research at Convoy, said in his monthly commentary on the report. Terrazas said the decline was the largest one-month decrease since September 2019.

Terrazas noted that the January and February figures had been revised upward, so the comparison was against a higher base. At 1,550,800 jobs, the March jobs were still more than the January figure of 1,545,700 jobs. 

Given the growing signs of weakness in the trucking market, Terrazas wondered whether next month’s data would start to reflect that, specifically when it came to wages. Nominal wage data reporting is delayed two weeks, he said, and that category in transportation was up a whopping 11% in its most recent release. 

“If March’s freight market slump proves enduring, that could be as high as it gets — an astonishingly swift turnaround in sentiment from the anxiety over labor shortages that dominated trucking concerns just a few weeks ago,” he said. 

Compared to a year ago, there are 55,900 more jobs in the truck transportation sector as defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS numbers do not include independent owner-operators. 

Jason Miller, a professor at Michigan State University, also pointed to the earlier revisions as a key point to consider when analyzing the March decline. “The upward adjustment in February makes the March decline from February more understandable,” he said in an email to FreightWaves.

But Miller also noted that the individual category of long-distance truckload, which comes out on a one-month lag, is a strong candidate to be revised downward. The numbers in February on a not seasonally adjusted basis rose by a large 15,700. “I can’t help but think this gets revised downwards,” Miller said. 

Among other highlights from the report:

— February was a good month for trucking compensation. Production and nonsupervisory employees’ average hourly pay in February was $26.72, up a large amount from January’s number of $26.21. The 1.95% increase is the second-largest one-month move in the history provided by BLS, which goes back to 2012. Not coincidentally, the producer price index for truck transportation rose 1.6% month to month. While not on the level of the 3% registered in November, it does leave the truck transportation PPI up 19.7% compared to a year ago.

— Warehousing continued to roar along. Seasonally adjusted jobs rose 4,300 to 1,764,700. But the big news in the warehouse sector was that there was a large revision in the February numbers. Warehouse storage jobs in February were 1,760,400 jobs, up from an initial publication of 1,738,200 jobs. With January’s upward revision, it means that warehouse jobs on a seasonally adjusted basis are up 26,500 from January. Surprisingly, average hourly earnings in the sector declined to $22.85 from $23.10, and the average weekly hours worked slid to 38.6 from 38.8. The average number of hours worked was at its lowest since May 2020. And while the number of jobs rose, the producer price index for warehouses fell 4.1% on a month-to-month basis between January and February. 

— Even as the country as a whole enjoyed an overall unemployment rate of 3.6%, the BLS reported an unemployment rate in the combined trucking and warehousing sectors of 5.1%. But that sector includes several areas that remain hit by the pandemic, including air transportation and a number of tourist-related fields. 

More articles by John Kingston

Trucking jobs increase 22 straight months

Jobs report: lots of them but more in warehouses than at truckers

Truck jobs rose in November seasonally but fell without adjustment

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