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January 16, 2012 1:45 AM, EST

Trucking Adds 5,100 to Payrolls in December

By Michele Fuetsch, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the Jan. 16 print edition of Transport Topics.

For-hire carriers added 5,100 new jobs last month, making December the fourth consecutive month in which trucking industry job growth has been positive after slumping late in the summer.

December’s gains represented the industry’s largest monthly employment growth since March, when trucking’s payroll expanded by 5,500, the U.S. Department of Labor said in its Dec. 6 monthly employment report.

The economy added 200,000 jobs overall in December, pushing the unemployment rate down to 8.5%, the lowest in three years.

“This was definitely a surprise to the upside,” said Bob Costello, chief economist for American Trucking Associations. “When the economy is doing better, that means trucking‘s going to do better,” Costello said.

Economists had predicted 150,000 jobs would be added in December, he said. The Labor Department revised the unemployment rate for November, pegging it at 8.7% instead of the previously reported 8.6%.

The job news for trucking and the larger economy was so positive that Costello said he is “very confident” that the fourth quarter’s gross domestic product, to be announced later this month, will be a 3% annual rate or higher.

“We knew that the fourth quarter was strong . . . that a lot of retailers got caught off guard . . . [by] stronger holiday sales than they anticipated,” Costello said.

“They were replenishing, that’s one of the reasons why truck tonnage is doing OK . . . increasing in October and November,” he added.

Going forward into 2012, it bodes well for trucking that retail inventories are at record lows, meaning they still need replenishing, Costello said.

Donald Broughton, a transportation analyst and managing director at Avondale Partners, a national investment banking firm in Nashville, echoed Costello.

“Truck driver pay is still steadily going up and that’s a positive predictor for overall employment,” said Broughton. “In 2011 we saw driver pay go up 3% to 5%,” he said.

Another positive indicator for the economy was that job growth in the transportation sector — including warehousing, airlines, railroads and courier businesses — was a leader in overall job creation, Costello said.

The sector accounted for 50,200 of the economy’s new jobs, DOL said.

In the warehouse area, 1,600 new workers were added in December, bringing total employees to 633,600 compared with 631,800 in December 2010.

Trucking’s December payroll was 40,100 larger than it was in December 2010 — 1,296,000 compared with 1,255,900.

The construction industry was also buoyed by the latest employment report, gaining 17,000 new jobs in December, largely in nonresidential construction employment.

Officials at the Associated General Contractors of America said in a written statement that it was too soon to determine if the brighter employment picture was the result of increased demand or of unseasonably warm weather in much of the country that allowed workers to stay on construction sites.

The nation’s manufacturing sector added 23,000 new jobs in December and the retail sector 27,900, the DOL said.

The government sector, however, continued to contract, losing 12,000 jobs as state and local jurisdictions struggled to balance budgets in the face of reduced tax revenues.