Trucking employment continues rebound from pandemic-induced losses

October 8, 2021

Tyson Fisher


Recovery from the pandemic may be slower than many would like, but the growth streak in trucking employment continued in September, inching closer to pre-pandemic levels.

Trucking employment went up by 2,500 jobs after gaining 6,000 in August. That marks the fourth consecutive monthly increase. Revised data shows an increase of more than 6,000 jobs in July, nearly double the preliminary numbers. August’s initial increase was reported to be around 5,000 jobs.

Employment numbers for September and August are preliminary.

The trucking subsector had a net loss of 42,500 jobs in 2020. This is far from the largest annual decrease. In 2009, more than 100,000 trucking jobs were lost, preceded by employment being down by 76,500 jobs in 2008 during the Great Recession. In 2001, another recession year, trucking jobs fell by more than 49,000.

Compared to the end of 2020, trucking employment is up 24,000 jobs. At this time last year, there was a decrease of more than 71,000 jobs after the trucking subsector experienced its biggest monthly loss since tracking of the subsector began in 1990 due to the pandemic. April 2020 was hit the hardest by the pandemic because of new stay-at-home orders nationwide, causing businesses to shut down or modify operations.

Resulting job losses in trucking erased more than five years of trucking employment growth. However, May 2020 was the start of a nine-month streak of increases. With nearly 1.5 million trucking jobs, the industry is nearing pre-pandemic levels of just more than 1.5 million jobs last February. Last April, those numbers dipped to numbers last seen in fall of 2014.

However, the situation for owner-operators may be better than what the numbers show.

According to an analysis by online freight network Convoy, the government’s data does not factor in owner-operators, potentially downplaying their employment situation “during periods of elevated labor market churn or when employment growth is being driven by newly incorporated firms.”

The Current Population Survey indicates that employment for company drivers and owner-operators could be at or above pre-pandemic levels.

“While that employment level may not be sufficient to service the current extraordinary level of demand, it’s unlikely that demand will persist at current levels in the coming years — meaning that it’s entirely rational for trucking firms to hire to a level in line with their expectations of long-term business needs, not just today’s,” Aaron Terrazas, Convoy’s director of economic research, stated in his analysis.

The transport sector experienced its fifth consecutive monthly gain with more than 47,000 additional jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last month’s report showed employment was up more than 53,000 jobs in the sector in August. Revised data now puts that number at 54,500.

All but one of the transportation subsectors experienced increases, with warehousing/storage leading the pack with nearly 16,000 new jobs, followed by couriers/messengers (12,500) and air transport (9,700). Rail transportation employment fell by 500 jobs, the only transportation subsector experiencing a loss in September.

The transportation sector experienced a job loss of nearly 93,000 last year. Like trucking employment, the transportation sector as a whole had worse years in 2009 (minus 273,800), 2008 (minus 153,800) and 2001 (minus 235,700).

Year to date, the transport sector is up nearly 227,000 jobs. This time last year, transportation jobs were down by nearly 245,000 because of the pandemic.

Average hourly earnings for the transportation and warehousing sector were $26.95 – an increase of 10 cents from the previous month. Earnings were up by $1.37 from September 2020 after wages plummeted last year amid a surge in the unemployment rate. Hourly earnings for production/nonsupervisory jobs were up by 25 cents to $24.54 and increased by nearly $2 year to year. Average hourly earnings for private, nonfarm payrolls across all industries were $30.85, a 19-cent increase from the previous month.

The unemployment rate for transportation and material-moving occupations dropped significantly to 6.9% from 8.2% in August. This time last year, the unemployment rate in the transport sector was sitting at nearly 11% due to the pandemic.

Overall unemployment fell by 0.4 percentage points to 4.8% after the economy gained nearly 200,000 jobs in September. The jobless rate is still up 1.3 percentage points from last February, just before the implementation of stay-at-home orders. However, unemployment has fallen by about 10.1 percentage points since last April. LL