Saturday, January 2, 2016

Report Predicts Major USPS Downsizing - But Is It on Target?

Priority Mail boom is keeping letter carriers busy.
Here we go again: Yet another government study has spurred news stories about how the U.S. Postal Service is on the verge of massive downsizing.

“The next decade isn't expected to be kind to postal worker employment,” stated U.S. News & World Report recently, based on a new Bureau of Labor Statistics study. The postal workforce “is expected to contract by 165,000” from 2014 to 2024.

Reports like that don’t help the Postal Service’s efforts to recruit new employees. Many of the agency's 100,000-plus annual new hires work long hours at low pay with no benefits in hopes of snagging a coveted career USPS position. That doesn't sound like a very promising career path -- if the BLS is correct.

But it looks as if the report is based on old data and outdated assumptions.

Contrast BLS’s prediction with a statement this week in USPS’s annual report to Congress: “The Postal Service increased the number of career employees by approximately 4,000 in FY2015, compared to the year before.” The number of non-career employees also rose slightly.

The growth trend is continuing in FY2016, which began Oct. 1. The postal workforce has risen about 2% -- more than 12,000 employees – since a year ago. Postal officials aren’t planning any major job reductions this year and seem to have backed off of earlier plans to implement significant cuts in the coming years.

Still, 2024 is a long way off. And the Postal Service shed more than 280,000 workers from 2000 to 2013, so the kind of cuts predicted by the BLS are not unprecedented. So let’s take a look at why the agency is predicting that the postal workforce is about to shrink again:

After declining 38% from 2000-2013, USPS employment has leveled out.
“Overall employment of postal service workers is projected to decline 28 percent from 2014 to 2024. Automated sorting systems, cluster mailboxes, and tight budgets will adversely affect employment.”

Sorry, BLS, automated sorting is old news and seems unlikely to yield much in the way of future productivity gains. Opposition from many corners means that a shift to cluster mailboxes will proceed at a snail’s pace. And tight USPS budgets are nothing new.

“Employment of postal service clerks is projected to decline 26 percent from 2014 to 2024. Employment may be adversely affected by the decline in First-Class Mail volume due to increasing use of automated bill pay and email.” Wrong again. The number of postal clerks actually rose more than 5% in FY2015, as the dramatic outflow of First-Class Mail volumes slowed to a trickle. How much more impact can email have when it’s already made the personal letter nearly obsolete?

More BS from the BLS
“Employment of postal service mail carriers is projected to decline 26 percent [from 297,000 to 219,000] from 2014 to 2024. Employment may be adversely affected by the use of automated “delivery point sequencing” systems that sort letter mail directly. This reduces the amount of time that carriers spend sorting, allowing them to spend more time on the streets delivering mail.”

Again, old news: Delivery-point sequencing of virtually all letters has been in place for several years, so it’s not likely to cause any more job cuts. And DPS for flat mail, in the form of the Flats Sequencing System, has been a major disappointment. The numbers of both career letter carriers and non-career city carrier assistants inched up during FY2015, the USPS told Congress this week.

The BLS wisely hedged its prediction about letter carriers: “The post office is playing a greater role in the delivery of goods purchased online. An increase in the number of deliverable packages as a result of e-commerce may slow the rate of employment decline for carriers.”

That’s an understatement: Largely because of a 14% increase in the USPS’s “shipping and packages services,” the numbers of both career and non-career letter carriers actually inched up during FY2015.

USPS’s strong growth for labor-intensive products like Parcel Select and Priority Mail shows no signs of abating. That, coupled with only minimal decreases in traditional letter mail, means that the Postal Service is unlikely to do much downsizing during the next few years.

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Kevin said...

Every article excludes the rural carriers. As cities grow, many grow into "rural carrier" territory.

D. Eadward Tree said...

Not so, Kevin. This article refers to "mail carriers," which in my mind includes both city and rural carriers (and CCAs). When I said that the number of "career letter carriers" inched up last year, I was combining the numbers for city and rural carriers. (Actually, the number of city carriers was down very slightly, but modest growth in the number of rural carriers more than made up for that decline. Which sort of proves your point that the growth is in the rural areas.)

Anonymous said...

My mother has been a rural carrier for 20 plus years. Package delivery is growing exponentially. 10 packages to almost 200 for just one residential route. (Not to mention the need to still deliver the increased mail count in the same amount of time.) Online shopping is growing and so will the USPS. The only change I suspect is the size of the LLV.

marc zazeela said...

I agree with the Anonymous poster and the spirit of your article. We have seen ecommerce parcel growth growing explosively in the last year or two. That is far more labor intensive than letters and will require manpower to continue to deliver effectively.

Also, as you state, much of the data is old and irrelevant. Sounds like the U.S. News report may have been written by someone who didn't do all the research or who may have a political agenda.

D. Eadward Tree said...

Marc, I don't blame the reporter (with whom I corresponded, by the way), blame BLS. The reporter accurately reported what the BLS report said; the report just happens to be wrong. I've hung around journalists enough to know that the old mantra is true: "A reporter is only as good as his or her sources."