US truck driver ranks expand, but not enough

Whether or not trucking hit a bottom in volume or pricing in the summer of 2016, the industry certainly seemed to bounce back in terms of trucking employment. Since hitting a low point in June, motor carriers added 15,600 employees through November, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest data shows. In November, trucking companies tracked by the BLS added 1,100 employees to their payrolls, after bringing a revised 6,800 workers on board in October.

The influx of new workers sent the JOC For-Hire Trucking Employment Index to 101.6 in November, the highest level before or since the 2008 to 2009 recession. The employment numbers provide further evidence that motor carriers were slowly climbing out of a deep trough at the end of 2016. November was the fifth straight month that trucking employment rose after a three-month year-over-year decline in mid-2016.

In October, the Cass Freight Index for shipments, a measure of US domestic freight volume, rose for the first time on a year-over-year basis in 20 months, climbing 2.7 percent.

That’s a sign additional spending helped fill more tractor-trailers. “The winter of the overall freight recession we have seen for over a year-and-a-half in the US may not be over, but it is showing signs of thawing,” Avondale Partners said in its report on the Cass index. 

Transportation payrolls overall expanded at the end of 2016, with transportation and warehousing industries adding 8,900 jobs from October and 60,600 jobs since November 2015, a 1.2 percent gain. Rail, aviation, and maritime employment in the United States decreased slightly in November, although messenger and courier companies and warehouses added workers.

Warehouse operators expanded their workforce for the 34th straight month, adding 3,100 jobs month-to-month in November, as demand for industrial storage space soared. That increase underscores the buildup of inventories that helped depress freight demand and trucking recruitment efforts in much of 2015 and 2016.

Does this mean the driver shortage is history? Far from it. Increasingly, trucking is bumping against a hiring ceiling, as the narrow year-over-year gains in employment show. Low unemployment and job openings in competing industries such as construction mean fewer candidates are available to fill trucking jobs, especially long-haul truck drivers.

Over the three months that ended in November, construction businesses added 59,000 jobs, largely in residential construction, the BLS said. Construction employment rose 2.4 percent year-over-year in November. In a sign as to why construction might siphon jobs from trucking, the average hourly construction wage rose 3.2 percent to $26.24 in November, and the average hourly transportation and warehousing wage rose 1.4 percent to $21.17.

The gap between the average hourly construction and transportation wage widened year-over-year by 51 cents, to $5.07. Although that’s an improvement from a $5.11 gap in October, it’s a clear advantage for construction companies hiring blue-collar workers. 

Contact William B. Cassidy at bill.cassidy@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @wbcassidy_joc.