Industry Outlook

The outlook for the transportation industry generally varies depending on the sector and the job. Some areas are usually expected to have more employment growth than others. The coronavirus pandemic has had a deep impact on the transportation industry in the U.S. and throughout the world. The lock-downs and travel restrictions have caused declines in revenue and employment in many transportation sectors. The accelerated distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 will bolster the economy and help in the recovery of the transportation industry. In the near future, as lock-downs and travel restrictions lift, the pandemic comes to an end, and the economy rebounds, there will be increased spending and revenues in most of the transportation sectors.

As of January 2021, the U.S. domestic airlines industry was valued at $106.5 billion, with compound annual growth projected to be -5 percent from 2016 through 2021. According to research group IBISWorld, revenue was estimated to be down by nearly 54 percent in 2020, because of travel warnings and restrictions. As the pandemic becomes contained, consumers and businesspeople will resume traveling. In addition, the stabilization of jet fuel prices over the next few years will help U.S. domestic airlines grow their revenue by reinstating fuel surcharges. Growth is predicted through 2025, but it may take longer for the industry revenue to reach pre-pandemic levels. As of early 2021, there were 1,608 businesses employing 290,195 people in the domestic airlines industry in the U.S.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) foresees an $84 billion loss in revenue in the airlines industry for 2020. This is a 50 percent drop in revenue compared to the previous year, declining from $838 billion in 2019 to $419 billion in 2020. The IATA predicts that the industry will rebound in 2021, however, with slow growth to $598 billion. The recovery for global passenger travel is expected to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

Average job growth is expected for most of the jobs in the airlines industry through 2028, according to the Department of Labor. Airline pilots, copilots, and flight engineers will have average employment growth in the coming years, with most jobs arising from the need to replace those who leave the occupation permanently. Once the airlines industry rebounds and more people are able to travel, to increase profitability, airlines will increase the number of passengers on aircraft while reducing the number of flights per day and eliminating routes. This will reduce the number of pilot jobs. Commercial pilots, on the other hand, will have faster than average employment growth in the coming years, as various industries such as ambulance and air transportation services will have more job openings. There will be little or no change in employment of air traffic controllers through 2028. Air traffic controllers will continue to be needed to replace those who retire from the profession. In the future, the NextGen satellite-based system is expected to increase air traffic control capabilities and reduce the need for more air traffic controllers. Flight attendants will have faster than average employment growth the next few years, with job opportunities stemming from the need to replace attendants who are retiring or leaving the job for other work. There may also be more opportunities with regional or low-cost airlines.

In 2020, the railroad industry sought federal grants for rail capital projects and for assistance due to pandemic-related declines in revenue. A revenue drop of about 15.6 percent was anticipated for the railroad transportation industry in 2020, according to market researcher IBISWorld, due to business closures and reduced ridership. As of January 2021, rail freight traffic in the United States was down by 2.1 percent compared to January 2020, as reported by Statista. With the successful distribution of the vaccine to the majority of the population in 2021, more businesses will reopen and ridership will increase. Steady growth in the railroad transportation industry is projected through 2025.

The Department of Labor predicts that railroad workers will experience a 2 percent decline in employment through 2028. Most job opportunities will arise from workers who retire from the field. In recent years, many railroad companies have been focused on improving productivity by increasing freight capacity rather than adding more workers. Double-stacking trains or running longer trains are examples of the tactics railroads are using to increase capacity. Intermodal freight may increase in the next few years, however, which could increase the demand for railroad workers. Goods that are shipped through several types of transportation modes are known as intermodal freight. More railroad workers may also be needed in the coming years as the demand for crude oil transportation continues to grow.

Water transportation workers are expected to have a 2 percent employment decline through 2028, according to the Department of Labor. The fluctuations in demand for bulk commodities, such as iron ore, grains, and petroleum products, have a big effect on waterborne jobs. High demand for these commodities will mean increased employment for water transportation workers, while low demand means fewer workers will be needed. The DOL also points out that larger vessels that are able to carry more cargo require fewer workers. Strong competition from other transportation options, like railways, trucks, and pipelines, may limit job growth in domestic waterway freight. Jobs with deep-sea shipping companies are expected to stay stable due to federal laws and subsidies that ensure the continuance of merchant ship fleets with U.S. flags. Cruise ship employment is expected to start opening up again later in 2021 and the following years, once the pandemic ends and cruise lines return to full operations.

The U.S. trucking industry is expected to have slow growth through 2021, and then pick up from there. For example, general freight trucking is projected to have compound annual growth of more than 9 percent from 2021 through 2023, growing from about $742 billion in 2020 to more than $934 billion in 2023. As the economy strengthens, trucking rates will continue to grow. Truck-driver shortages are also expected to be an ongoing issue, with shortages due mainly to retiring personnel, growth in the trucking industry, and also the fact that many applicants are not qualified for the jobs.

The Department of Labor predicts average employment growth for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers through 2028. As more businesses and households increase spending on goods, more truck drivers will be needed to transport those goods. Truck drivers will continue to be needed to transport materials for the oil and gas industries. Truck drivers with proper training and clean driving records will have the best job prospects.

Bus drivers are also expected to have average employment growth in the coming years, according to the DOL. Transit and intercity bus drivers will have good job opportunities as the population in large metropolitan areas continues to grow. Bus drivers for special-needs clients will also be needed, particularly for the aging population.