Employment: Truckers Out in the Cold?

In his Rational Irrationality blog, John Cassidy of The New Yorker tries to make sense of contradictory hiring and employment figures the Bureau of Labor Statistics released for January.

The BLS reported unemployment fell 0.4 percentage points to 9 percent in January, but non-farm payroll employment "changed little" -- only increasing by 36,000 jobs.

"It doesn't take a great grasp of economics to figure out that when firms cut down on hiring the unemployment rate should increase. But last month, the opposite happened. Or did it?" Cassidy writes.

The report draws on two different surveys, he points out, a survey of about 60,000 households for unemployment and a survey of 140,000 businesses for hiring.

"With samples this large, you might think the surveys would agree, but sometimes they don't, and this was one of those occasions," Cassidy says in his blog.

Last month's severe weather may have skewed the figures, he suggests, as many people were unable to report to work and some firms were forced to close temporarily at times during the month.

That may explain the difference between the seasonally adjusted and unadjusted figures for employment in what BLS calls "Truck Transportation."

The seasonally adjusted figures -- which try to account for factors such as severe weather -- show trucking employment increasing by 3,200 jobs last month from December and by 21,500 jobs from January 2010.

The unadjusted, raw numbers tell a different story. They show trucking employment dropping by 22,400 jobs from December, while increasing by 25,400 jobs from the previous January.

In that case, the raw BLS data indicate trucking -- or at least a portion of for-hire trucking -- gained 48,000 jobs over the course of 2010 only to lose almost half of them in one month.

Given the state of trucking -- which has been struggling to recruit drivers as freight demand heats up -- the gradual seasonally adjusted increase in trucking employment seems more likely.

Without doubt, many truckers were unable to work for some period during the last month -- stuck at terminals, truck stops, hotels, homes or the side of the road during the widespread snowstorms.

The raw numbers for January may reflect the number of drivers who were temporarily sidelined.

Trucking employment dropped 16.6 percent from 2007 through 2010, falling from more than 1.4 million to 1.2 million among the companies BLS tracks.

That's not just truck drivers: BLS data include mechanics, office personnel and managers. The bureau tracks employment at approximately 111,000 for-hire local, long-haul and specialized trucking companies.

As trucking firms report stronger profits and higher sales, those numbers should begin heading up again. The big question will be how quickly, and at what price in terms of driver pay?

-- Contact William B. Cassidy at wcassidy@joc.com.

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