The Five Fastest-Growing Transportation Industries, and the Stories Behind Their Rise

This month’s ZipRecruiter Industry Spotlight focuses on the transportation sector, which employs more than 4 million Americans. It takes a look at the five fastest-growing transportation industries of the past decade–those with the greatest percent growth in employment, as measured by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics–and explores the reasons behind their expansions.

Each case is an example of how new technologies and innovations–such as mobile rideshare apps and online shopping–are transforming the face of transportation, with profound implications for employment.

IndustryPercent change in employmentNet change in employment
Airport operations53%36,400
Other ground passenger transportation53%38,400
Marine cargo handling39%18,600
Support activities for air transportation35%58,200
Motor vehicle towing31%16,000
Support activities for other transportation, including rail26%13,600
Freight transportation arrangement25%46,900
Support activities for transportation23%133,200
Support activities for road transportation21%17,700
Pipeline transportation19%7,600
General freight trucking, long-distance LTL19%42,500
Scenic and sightseeing transportation18%5,400
Transit and ground passenger transportation17%69,400
Other specialized trucking, long-distance16%19,000
Urban, interurban, rural, and charter bus transportation14%13,300
General freight trucking, local12%28,200
School and employee bus transportation11%19,700
Specialized freight trucking10%42,900
Other specialized trucking, local10%20,200
Taxi service8%2,500
Truck transportation7%94,000
General freight trucking5%49,700
Used household and office goods moving4%4,200
General freight trucking, long-distance3%22,800
Non-scheduled air transportation1%600
Air transportation1%5,700
Scheduled air transportation1%5,000
Support activities for water transportation-2%-2,300
Taxi and limousine service-3%-2,200
Water transportation-3%-2,300
General freight trucking, long-distance TL-4%-20,300
Rail transportation-6%-14,500
Limousine service-12%-4,800
Support activities for water transportation, except marine cargo-40%-21,300

Source: Current Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 1, 2019

1. Airport operations – 53% growth

The industry: The airport operations industry (NAICS code: 48811) comprises businesses engaged in operating airports and providing support for airport operations, such as hangar rental companies, air traffic control services, baggage handling services, and cargo handling services.

Recent employment growth: Employment in the industry numbered 68,200 workers at the start of 2008, fell more than 10% to 61,000 during the Great Recession, and then rose quickly to 104,500. Part of the growth in airport operations employment is cyclical. When the economy does better, more people travel for business and leisure. (U.S. airlines carried more than 960 million passengers in 2017, up from 760 million in 2009.) But much of the growth is due to the rise of E-commerce (from 4% of total retail sales in 2008, to more than 10% today), which has increased demand for air cargo.

Future outlook: E-Commerce and commercial air travel are likely to continue to grow, so the long-term air operations employment outlook is good, although the industry’s performance will likely remain highly procyclical. Some jobs in the industry, such as cargo handling and baggage handling jobs, are quite likely to be automated eventually, whereas air traffic control services are very unlikely to be automated. In all three cases, however, jobs on ZipRecruiter grew between 2017 and 2018 while job seeker searches fell, indicating a tightening labor market, which is likely to place upward pressure on wages.

2. Other ground passenger transportation – 53% growth

The industry: The BLS’s “other ground passenger transportation” category (NAICS code: 48590) applies to ground passenger transportation services such as Uber and Lyft, shuttle services, and vanpools, but not to taxi or limousine services, school and employee buses, or charter bus services.

Recent employment growth: Limousine service employment has fallen by 4.8% and traditional taxi service employment has stayed relatively flat over the past decade. But employment in “other passenger transport” is up a dramatic 53%. This is largely due to the rise of Uber and Lyft. These ride-sharing apps have emerged thanks to the development and combination of a long list of technologies, including smartphones, GPS, online credit card payment systems, user-friendly interfaces, and matching algorithms. They have dramatically changed the nature of employment in the transportation industry, causing a shift towards more flexible, part-time work.

According to a recent study, Uber drivers would reduce the hours of labor they supply by more than two-thirds if they had to work fixed shifts. That’s a clear indication that drivers benefit from the flexibility ride-sharing apps provide. Customers benefit because Uber and Lyft provide transportation in a wider range of neighborhoods and across a wider range of hours that would be feasible for any traditional taxi company, while also improving convenience and customer experience. The companies themselves benefit from the increased number of market transactions and larger customer base.

Future outlook: For now, traditional taxi and limousine driver jobs on ZipRecruiter are completely flat year-over-year, whereas searches are down about 60% for taxi driver jobs and down 20% for limousine driver jobs. Meanwhile, jobs for Uber and Lyft drivers have exploded in our marketplace between 2017 and 2018, and job seeker searches have doubled as well. Gig work in ground passenger transportation is still growing by leaps and bounds today, but it is due to experience a serious disruption in the coming years as jobs are automated.

3. Marine cargo handling – 39% growth

The industry: The marine cargo handling industry (NAICS code: 48832) includes companies that provide loading and unloading services at ports and harbors, and ship hold cleaning services.

Recent employment growth: Employment fell from 47,000 to under 40,000 during the Great Recession but has since grown to almost 66,000. Demand for marine cargo handling services closely mirrors U.S. trade volumes. That is because international imports and exports make up the majority of waterborne cargo transportation. Trade volumes have been increasing since the Great Recession, due to increases in domestic consumer spending and in U.S. industrial production. According to the Census Bureau, total industry revenue rose 47% from $7.3 billion in 2009 to a peak of $10.7 billion in 2015.

Future outlook: Jobs for port drivers and marine cargo workers are growing quickly on ZipRecruiter, more than doubling between 2017 and 2018, and job seeker interest is rising, too. Employment growth is likely sustainable, even with the adoption of new technologies. Whereas the adoption of container shipping reduced the need for cargo handling workers, the new technologies being introduced into the industry will likely improve the productivity of humans, rather than supplant them. Increasingly, cargo shipping companies are investing in AI-enabled systems that collect data on voyage-impacting factors, such as weather, port congestion, and ship maintenance needs. The increased use of predictive analytics could lead to an increase in the amount of scheduled, preventive maintenance work and lead to real-time operational adjustments that keep vessels moving in the most cost-effective ways and prevent the kinds of delays and disruptions that sometimes cause cargo handling workers to be idle. In other words, the new technologies will likely make workers more productive and increase demand for their skills.

4. Support activities for air transportation – 35% growth

The industry: Support activities for transportation (NAICS code: 4881) includes companies engaged in providing services like airport operation, servicing, repairing, maintaining, storing, and ferrying aircraft.

Recent employment growth: Employment fell from 166,000 before the recession to about 150,000 after but has since steadily climbed to about 224,000. Employment is growing for the same reasons as those mentioned in section 1–increased air travel and air cargo transport. In addition, airlines are under pressure to use aircraft more efficiently and turn them around more quickly. That requires more ground staff to be available to service, clean, and maintain them as needed.

Future outlook: Here’s yet another industry where employment growth is likely sustainable because new technological innovations are augmenting human work, rather than replacing it. For example, carriers are increasingly installing aircraft monitoring sensors and using predictive analytics to alert technicians to replace or service parts proactively and respond to any malfunctions more quickly. While jobs in the industry continue to rise on ZipRecruiter (for example, for aircraft mechanics and aircraft fuelers), job seeker searches are falling, and labor markets are tightening, placing further pressure on airlines to raise wages and improve working conditions.

5. Motor vehicle towing – 31% growth

The industry: The motor vehicle towing industry (NAICS code: 48841) comprises companies engaged in towing light or heavy vehicles and providing incidental services, such as storage and emergency road repairs.

Recent employment growth: Employment remained relatively flat during the recession, at about 50,000, but has since risen to more than 67,000. Travel on the nation’s roads and streets has gone up 14% over the past decade, from 227 billion vehicle miles traveled in January 2008 to 259 billion in January 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The increase in the total number of traffic accidents per year has been even steeper–25% just between 2008 and 2016. Reasons for the increase in crashes include an overall increase in traffic congestion and an increase in the number of truck drivers traveling long distances, often overnight. Although car reliability has improved, breakdowns due to malfunctions still remain fairly common in both cars and trucks.

Future outlook: The rapid growth in motor vehicle towing is likely to reverse as the number of semi-autonomous vehicles on our streets, and eventually also fully autonomous vehicles, increases, and as people increasingly switch to electric cars. 90% of car accidents are due to human error, so autonomous vehicles could dramatically reduce the number of accidents. And most car trouble is caused by issues related to internal combustion engines so electrical cars could reduce the number of broken down vehicles needing to be towed (provided their battery ranges improve). Job seekers appear to be anticipating future declines in the industry, with job seeker searches on ZipRecruiter for tow truck driver jobs falling even as job postings continue to rise.

Although driverless cars will reduce towing employment, they will likely create many jobs in other areas. By reducing congestion, they will expand the effective size of labor markets, making business districts accessible from more neighborhoods and giving people greater access to economic opportunity. People will also use their travel time differently and increase their demand for entertainment, online content, and services during their commutes, creating opportunities for content creators and service providers.

At the same time, a new towing job of sorts is being created due to the rollout of bike share and e-scooter programs across the nation’s cities. These programs have increased employment for bicycle repairers, scooter mechanics, and freelance scooter “chargers,” who pick up scooters every night and recharge them, getting paid per scooter.

The Future of the Transportation Industry

Over the next 20 years, some occupations generated by the growth of international trade and e-commerce will likely continue to expand. Other occupations that are growing rapidly now (like Uber or Lyft driver, tow truck driver, and tow truck dispatcher) are very likely to shrink over the next 20 years as rideshare companies roll out fleets of driverless cars and road accidents become a rarity. But faster commutes and the more productive use of time spent in the car will expand opportunity and generate demand for new goods and services, while new technologies (like e-scooters) create entirely new jobs.

Ultimately, transportation is, without a doubt, the key sector to watch over the next decade–the one most likely to experience disruption and to give rise to technological innovations that transform our homes, cities, and lives.

Written by

Julia Pollak is Chief Economist at ZipRecruiter. She leads ZipRecruiter's economic research team, which provides insights and analysis on current labor market trends and the future of work.

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