Where is freight traffic increasing? What kinds of loads? There are no cloud-free crystal balls, but several data sources that cover recent changes in employment, population and house prices do give clues.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports on employment changes for more than 100 industries on the first or second Friday of every month. Both seasonally adjusted and raw data for the last five months and for one year before the latest month are presented. In general, seasonally adjusted figures give a better picture of what industries are adding employees for economic reasons. The raw numbers show actual employment counts but these figures naturally vary over the course of the year for many industries, such as retail, resorts, and education.
Thus, the most useful way to read the numbers is to compare growth over a 12-month period rather than month-to-month. The BLS employment data web site, www.bls.gov/ces, includes tables that show whether recent employment changes have been statistically significant, how much movement there has been over 3-, 6-, and 12-month periods, and how long it has been since the last peak and dip in industry employment.
Industries that have been consistently adding jobs recently include construction, mining, hospitals, and warehousing and storage. They all appear to be good bets for trucking companies wanting to know where to look for more freight. At the other extreme, most manufacturing industries, logging, and gasoline stations are still shedding employees, more than two years after employment started turning up in the overall economy.
A few weeks after releasing national figures, BLS puts out employment estimates for each state, and later for nearly 370 metropolitan areas, with varying amounts of industry detail (www.bls.gov/sae). From May 2004 to May 2005, the largest percentage increase in employment was in Yuma, AZ (+10.5%), and the largest percentage decline was in Ocean City, N.J. (-8.3%).
Areas where population is growing fastest are generating in-migration for household movers but also destinations for building materials, consumer goods, and products purchased by local governments. The Census Bureau posts data on population change to July 1 of the previous year from one year before and from the last census for each state, county, and metro area (www.census.gov/popest/). In late June Census reported that Port St. Lucie, FL, had the nation's fastest growth rate among large cities at 12%.
Changes in house prices over a year or longer point to regions with strong increases in buying power that can generate various types of trucking demand. The Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight calculates the percentage change in single-family house values for houses that were resold or refinanced using loans involving Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae. While not all-inclusive, that pool allows calculation of appreciation rates for every state and metro area for the latest quarter, year, and five-year period. It's posted (www.ofheo.gov) on the first of March, June, September, and December.
The bottom line: While nobody can see around the next bend in the economic or demographic road, looking into the rear-view mirror shows the road has relatively few twists. That is, factors like employment, population, and house values change in intensity but not dramatically in rank among industries or locations. That makes these data series useful for providing a general idea of what regions or sectors are worth investigating in more detail.