Post and courier activities is one of the industries where technological change coupled with changing consumption patterns has led to much restructuring with important implications in terms of employment. In this blog, we demonstrate how employment data reflect ongoing changes in this rapidly evolving industry.
Employment in post and courier services on the rise in most countries
Between 2003 and 2022, post and courier service employment grew in more than 70 per cent of lower-middle- and upper-middle-income countries for which data are available. In some of these countries, employment growth rates in the industry have been very high. For instance, the Philippines, Thailand and Sri Lanka have had double-digit average annual employment growth of post and courier services workers over the past decade or so. Other upper-middle countries in Latin America (e.g., Brazil, Ecuador and Mexico) and in Western Asia (e.g. Türkiye) have also had high employment growth rates (between 7.0 and 10 per cent annually) in this industry.
In high income countries, trends are more mixed, with an increase in post and courier workers’ employment in approximately half of the countries with available data, including in Cyprus, Israel, Italy, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United-States, and a decline in the other half, such as in Austria, France, Greece, Slovakia, Switzerland, and Uruguay.
The size and structure of employment in the post and courier industry varies widely
Employment in post and courier services, as a share of total employment, generally increases with countries’ income level. This is because the industry is supported by quality infrastructure and driven by the demand for its services – both of which tend to be higher in upper-middle- and high-income countries. Among the countries for which data are available, the largest share of post and courier services employment is in the United States, where the industry employed more than 2.2 per cent of the workforce in 2022.
There are important differences across regions, in terms of the distribution of the industry’s workers at the detailed level, between post and courier services. In the last year for which data are available, a significant share of the industry’s workers (over 80 per cent in most countries) were employed in courier services in most countries in Latin America, and in some South-East Asian countries (e.g., Philippines and Brunei Darussalam). In other Southeast Asian countries, and in most Arab States, a lower but still large share of the industry’s workers (50-79 per cent) are employed in courier services. On the other hand, for all countries with available data in Southern Asia and in Northern, Southern and Western Europe, courier services accounted for less than 50 per cent of the industry’s employment.
Composition shift from post to courier services
Over the past decade and even longer, the rise of electronic communication has led to a freefall in mail delivery volumes around the world, at the same time as the long-term growth of e-commerce sales led to a strong increase in parcel volume, which has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Consistent with these trends, detailed industry level employment data reveal an important composition shift of the industry’s employment, from post activities towards courier services, in virtually all countries with available data (for at least 5 years interval between 2006-2022). In most countries, employment growth was negative in the post industries, and positive – and often very high – in courier services. Thus, in many of the above-mentioned countries, high employment growth rates in the post and courier services industries were largely and often entirely driven by rapid employment growth in courier services. This trend is likely to continue in the future. Indeed, the global volume ratio of letters to parcels, which fell from 13:1 in 2005 to 4:1 in 2015 is projected to reach 1:1 parity by 2025. The share of letter-post in the industry’s revenue which also declined from over 50 per cent in 2005 to 34 per cent in 2021 is also projected to continue declining to approximately 29 per cent by 2025.
Context-specific shifts: self-employment, delivery platforms, and the rise of smaller firms in the parcels market
Looking at the growth rates of employment by firm size also reveals interesting insights. For instance, in Latin American countries, which have the highest share of self-employment and microenterprises in the industry, and which have seen very rapid growth of courier services employment over the past decade, self-employment and employment in firms of less than 5 workers had very high growth rates. This trend may partly reflect the rise of employment through online delivery platforms, as many delivery workers consider themselves self-employed (in the absence of clarity on the classification of platform workers, as international standards relating to this are still to be developed). Indeed, the share of self-employed workers and those employed in microenterprises increased exponentially in some countries in the region during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the demand for delivery workers increased sharply due to shop and restaurant closures, and displaced workers – including many migrant workers – saw platform employment as a means of generating labour income during the pandemic. For instance, in Costa Rica, the self-employed and microenterprise share in employment went from approximately 28 per cent in 2019, to 55 per cent in 2020, reaching 60 per cent by 2022. Similarly, In Ecuador, it went from 49 per cent in 2019 to 69 per cent by 2022.
On the other hand, in several European countries such as Italy, Serbia, and Slovakia, self-employment and employment in microenterprises has declined, while employment increased in small and medium enterprises (SMEs), defined here as between 5-49 workers. One potential explanation for the rise in the SME share of employment in certain countries is the loss of market share by large postal players to smaller business-to-consumer (B2C) enterprises who are more agile, have lower costs and are highly reliable. In many of these countries, the employment distribution by firm size is consistent with the coexistence of many players – both large and small – in a highly competitive parcel delivery market.
But who are postal and courier workers, and how are jobs in the industry changing?
Looking at employment data across all countries with reliable detailed industry data (at the 4-digit level), we identify key occupations and occupational trends in the post and courier service industries as follows. The most important categories of workers (employees in this case) are clerical support workers, which can account for more than half of the industry’s workers in some countries (e.g. France), and plant and machine operators and assemblers, which includes drivers, and also accounts for a very large share of the industry’s workforce (e.g. Brazil and Mexico). In some countries (e.g. Philippines and Colombia), the largest share of the industry’s employment is in elementary occupations, specifically freight handlers but mainly messengers, package deliverers and luggage porters.
Indeed, looking at the detailed data reveals that the occupational structure of the industry across the two latter groups of countries may not be as different as suggested by the aggregate occupational categories. Most likely, while package and parcel deliverers in the former group state their occupation as ‘drivers’ while workers in the same jobs in the latter group state it as ‘package deliverers’. Set aside this difference in notation, however, the above-mentioned employment composition shift from post to courier activities is also strongly reflected in the changing occupational structure of the industry in most countries. Specifically, the plant and mobile machinery operators (i.e., drivers), key occupations in the courier services industries, have seen their share in employment grow at the expense of clerical support occupations which are key in the post activities in nearly all countries.
Other occupational groups, including managers, professionals and technicians and associate professionals also contribute to the post and courier workforce, although their shares tend to be much lower. Among managers, a key occupation is that of Supply, distribution and related managers in many countries. Among professionals, depending on the country, key occupations include Advertising and marketing professionals and Management and organization analysts. Office supervisors are main occupations within the technicians and associate professionals category, and in some cases, Commercial sales representatives are also important. Given the recognition that postal services are at a cross-roads, and the imperative to accelerate digitalization and diversification of their services in order to remain relevant and competitive, the latter professional and technicians and associate professionals occupations, which to date remain a very small proportion of the industry’s workforce, may increasingly represent key assets for their organizations going forward.
Post and courier workers are essential workers, facilitating communications and transactions, connecting people to each other, to businesses, markets, government, and services. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of ensuring adequate pay, occupational safety and health, access to social protection, social dialogue, and other elements of decent work for these workers. Additionally, the above analysis highlights the importance of supporting these workers through the provision of reskilling and upskilling, so that they may be equipped to face – and make the best of – the rapid changes in their industry.