The U.S. employment outlook took an unexpected, and unwelcome, hit in August, when employers cut 4,000 jobs from payrolls—the first monthly job decline in four years. The distribution and transportation sectors are among those showing signs of a weakening labor picture.
A report released last month by the employment agency Manpower shows that the transportation and logistics sectors expect a slight downturn in hiring over the last three months of this year. A series of distribution center closings, including the shuttering of a Borders DC in Ohio that will eliminate 130 jobs and the closure of a Whirlpool DC in Iowa that will cost the community 93 jobs, have helped fuel the perception that the job market is getting shakier.
But things might not be quite so bad as those closings would indicate. For every press release announcing the shutdown of a DC, there seems to be another one proclaiming the opening of a new facility. In fact, many employment agencies that specialize in logistics and transportation are optimistic about the fourth quarter.
"Things have been very, very robust," says Brett Stevens, president of the SearchLogix Group, an Atlanta-based executive search business that fills about 60 logistics and transportation positions a year. "It's been very busy all year."
Don Jacobson, a senior partner at LogiPros, a recruiting firm that specializes in the placement of logistics management personnel, says that after a slow start, things have picked up in the last 30 to 60 days. Jacobson notes that most of the demand he's seeing is for supply chain and logistics positions, rather than jobs in DC operations. "We're seeing people gearing up for the fourth quarter, and that's a positive, although it's definitely more on the corporate level as opposed to the operations level," he observes.
Stevens has a somewhat different take. Unlike Jacobson's company, his firm has been fielding requests to fill front-line supervisors' positions at DCs.
At the same time, he's seeing subtle signs that employers are getting more tight-fisted. Stevens notes, for instance, that the companies he works with are not willing to pay big bucks to lure candidates away from other employers. He's also finding that companies are becoming pickier about the candidates they'll interview. "The talent that employers are requesting is very specific," says Stevens. "They want very high-quality people and are really raising the bar as to who gets in the door for interviews."
Stable yet cautious
The Manpower study found that employers plan to take a "stable yet cautious" approach toward hiring in the final quarter of 2007. More than half (58 percent) of the respondents said they planned no changes in their pace of hiring, while 27 percent expect to increase their workforce, and 9 percent plan to trim payrolls during the fourth quarter.
Jeffrey A. Joerres, Manpower's chairman and CEO, cautions against reading too much into these findings. "It is not unexpected that U.S. employers have conservative hiring plans for the fourth quarter," he said when releasing the report. "The market forces that impact hiring do not conclusively point toward growth or decline, and that is a likely contributor to the prudent hiring trends apparent in the survey throughout 2007."