Monday, April 29, 2019

Arrival of Driverless Vehicles Looming Large Over Lehigh Valley's Shipping Workforce

Experts forecast that automated trucking is expected to begin transforming the shipping industry within the next five years, just one of the many ways shippers are looking to wring costs out of the business and keep consumers happy by offering more 'free' shipping options for online orders.

Driverless commercial vehicles developed by Waymer, Google and Tesla have already completed cross-country trips in tests, and the Department of Transportation recently signaled it plans to review and modify its rules governing vehicle design standards to allow the use of self-driving vehicles while also ensuring road safety.

Overwhelming economic incentives make some form of automation for trucking inevitable. Untethered to labor laws limiting driving hours, shippers are expected to be able to move substantially more produce and products across far greater distances. Delivery speeds will likely increase as vehicles only have to stop for fuel or maintenance.

In some cases, shippers are planning to program trucks to form wind-resistant platoons on the road, potentially saving millions of dollars in fuel. But the most radical transformation will likely be a drastic reduction in labor, which could save shippers billions of dollars annually, according to some projections.

Close to 100,000 Pennsylvanians drive big rigs for a living. And while the expanding use of automation and driverless vehicles will certainly affect the industry nationally, the impact could be especially widespread in central and northeast Pennsylvania.

According to Oxford Economics, close to 40,000 people work in transportation in the Lehigh Valley market, accounting for more than a quarter of the job market. Roughly 70% of jobs added in Scranton, Pennsylvania since 1990 are in the transportation industry, with similar figures in Reading and Lebanon.

And CoStar data shows developers have added more than 63 million square feet of warehouse and distribution space throughout this region since 2010.

Annual salaries for Pennsylvania truckers average around $45,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, making it one of the region's highest paying positions for those without a college education.

Many secondary markets in Pennsylvania were previously battered in the early 2000’s when outsourcing and automation eliminated several thousand manufacturing jobs. The recession struck just a few years later, eliminating close to 12,500 jobs in Scranton alone, and Costar shows that most of these markets only returned to pre-recession employment levels in 2018.

While widespread job displacement among truckers likely won’t occur overnight, if pilot programs prove successful, its progress will likely become relentless. A 2018 Goldman Sachs report estimates that once fully implemented, automated driving could eliminate 25,000 jobs a month.

And if history is any guide, displaced workers without college degrees will struggle to transition into new careers. Retraining programs have proven troublingly ineffective. A 2016 Department of Labor survey found that 30% of displaced manufacturing workers were unable to find new positions, and opted to drop out of the labor force or go on disability.

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