Pulse: Jobs in Transition

Max Heine | December 01, 2009

MaxAs with the 2001 recession, there’s been much talk of a “jobless recovery.” It peaked with two reports in early November: Productivity increased 9.5 percent in the third quarter, while unemployment rose to 10.2 percent in October.

Not all explanations for the productivity gain, one of the three biggest in the last 30 years, carry equal weight. New computer systems or factory-line robots or low-wage workers in India could have taken over duties formerly done by Americans. Perhaps, but most such changes span more than three months.

In many workplaces, one person is doing a job formerly done by two. Whether it’s working extra hours or sloughing off inefficient procedures, it gets the work done.

Another factor is that rebounding businesses often start with hiring independent contractors or part-time help. This has long been a key part of for-hire trucking, especially when emerging from a recession. The strategy is good news for owner-operators, not so much for other CDL holders who can’t find a job or whose pay has suffered.

However productivity gains were achieved, what scares those who are out of work or vulnerable to layoffs is that the newly lean and mean parts of the economy won’t need those jobs back. After all, employers are cranking out more with lower labor costs. The productivity report noted hours worked dropped at a 5 percent annual rate, yet output increased 4 percent.

Beyond the generally depressed conditions that affect the entire economy, trucking employment shouldn’t decline as much as other sectors from a recovery where recent and future productivity advances put the brake on job growth.

There is only so much productivity to be gained in our industry and plenty to be lost:

• The political pressure against longer or heavier rigs, or higher speed limits, will block those potential gains.

• However the newly ordered review of the hours of service rule ends up, it’s more likely to cramp productivity. Ditto for if – more likely, when – electronic onboard recorders are mandated.

• The Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010 program (see Page 12) will introduce an amazingly in-depth data collection system that will screen out reckless carriers and drivers, based on recent history, starting as early as late 2010.

• New carriers, including owner-operators applying for operating authority, will be subject to tougher requirements if the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has its way.

• FMCSA is likely to enact tougher health standards that screen out more drivers.

So the bigger concern for certain professional drivers is not a recovery that can do without jobs, but trucking jobs that must do without disqualified drivers. Those who are safe and physically fit need not worry. If you’re in lousy health and your driving history is peppered with bad inspections, citations and wrecks, make plans to change your record – or your profession. It’s not too late.