The phone rings at Atlantic Trucking Co. in Charlotte a couple of hundred times a day lately. Terminal manager Lee Montgomery occasionally logs 12-hour shifts, taking orders and scanning rate quotes.
A cardboard sign, stuck in the grass outside, also signals better times in bold block letters: "Recruiting." Trucking companies around the country say business is picking up and therefore they are hiring, as firms ramp up inventories and consumers begin buying again. Economists and trucking officials say the industry is a leading indicator - meaning more jobs could be on the horizon for the rest of the economy.
Some truckers remain cautious, saying they're not sure how swift the recovery will be, but for now, they're optimistic.
"The good news is, we are busy," said Montgomery, who runs the Charlotte arm of the Charleston, S.C.-based Atlantic Trucking. "I just hope whatever got this big old engine going doesn't stop."
The transportation sector has grown in recent months, in sharp contrast to many other fields. Transportation and warehousing companies added 15,000 jobs nationwide in June, about 18 percent of the total private-sector gains, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found.
Transportation-related job postings jumped 73 percent last month over June 2009, according to the job search engine Indeed.com.
A solid upward trend
And the American Trucking Association trade group found recently that for-hire truck tonnage increased about 7 percent in May over the year before, the sixth straight month of gains. Though the May figure was down slightly from April, trucking association economists said the upward trend remained solid.
Those increases point to a rebound in the general economy, said Rick Kaglic, an economist with the Federal Reserve's Charlotte branch. He said truck tonnage is tied directly to manufacturing, indicating that companies are replenishing their inventories and businesses and consumers are buying more.
Kaglic said the trucking industry usually leads the rest of the economy by one to three quarters - meaning a modest recovery is in the works.
"I think it's going to be a sustained pickup, although it's going to continue to pick up at an ungratifying pace," he said.
To be sure, the broader economy has a long way to go. The state's unemployment rate was 10 percent in June, down from the month before but still far above pre-recession levels.
Still, local and national trucking workers are optimistic.
The Federal Reserve reported in its latest beige book, a snapshot of economic conditions, that manufacturing and transportation activity continued to improve in June, with most Fed districts reporting increases in factory production, shipments and new orders.
And the American Trucking Association's U.S. Freight Transportation Forecast, released in May, found that freight transportation is poised to grow through 2021. The study projected that total freight tonnage will grow 25 percent and total freight transportation revenue will grow almost 70 percent - though it pointed out that the nation's freight pool contracted by more than 12 percent in 2009.
Pickup began in early '09
Con-way Freight's terminal in Morrisville saw a 32 percent increase in trucking volume in June, compared to the previous year. The terminal logged 12,471 shipments in June, up from 9,443 the same month a year ago.
The company added a dozen employees in the past year and now has 83 in Morrisville.
The increase in business comes from new customers - like Cree, the Durham LED lighting company - as well as from a rise in demand from existing customers, said Howell Barr, the Morrisville service center manager.
Nearby, AAA Cooper has hired 10 drivers and dock workers this year at its Morrisville terminal. The company is making about 15,000 shipments a month, slightly exceeding its pre-recession monthly totals. During the nadir of the recession, his office was down to about 12,000 shipments a month.
"We've seen lulls over the years where you have to tighten your belt for a month or maybe a quarter. But nothing like we've seen recently. This [recession] made trucking history."
"We got the big crunch - March is when it really kicked in," said terminal manager Danny Keen. "Some of our customers have not recovered. Some customers we've lost. But we have new customers. On the whole, we've seen a big increase."
The pickup extends to truck manufacturers: Daimler Trucks North America announced last week it would call back about 540 workers to three Freightliner manufacturing facilities in the Charlotte region.
Robert Van Geons, executive director of the Salisbury-Rowan Economic Development Commission, sees signs that the economy has stabilized. "For a long time," he said, "people were only doing what they absolutely had to do to maintain operations. Now they are looking to replace what needs to be replaced."
Montgomery, the terminal manager for Atlantic Trucking, said he's looking for about five new drivers. He is advertising through classifieds and is even offering a signing bonus; he said every trucking company he talks to is also on the lookout.
"It's definitely pointing to a pickup," he said. "We just hope it sustains itself."
News & Observer staff writer John Murawski contributed to this story.
Kirsten Valle: 704-358-5248