A man walks in front of a row of semi-trucks at the Broadway Fuel Stop in Hardin, Mont.
A man walks in front of a row of semi-trucks at the Broadway Fuel Stop in Hardin, Mont. - 
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JEREMY HOBSON: So we're on our way out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Would you say it's a good time or bad time to embark on a new career as a truck driver? Turns out that in harder times, there may be more of a demand for trucks and, by extension, more demand for new drivers.

In the latest installment of our Economy 4.0series about new ways to measure the economy Marketplace Correspondent David Brancaccio reports on what might be called the "semi indicator."

David Brancaccio: Cuba, Mo., sits along lifelines of American commerce. First, historic Route 66 and now there's Interstate 44, a major artery for trucks across what the U.S. Census identifies as the center of the U.S. population. Cuba is also home to Westwind CDL Training Center. CDL as in "Commercial Drivers License," what you need to a drive truck.

Westwind commercial: About 300 drivers a year come through.

Mark Leathers, formerly of the Missouri Highway Patrol, is Westwind's boss. His team gives newbie drivers three weeks of basic training. There's a few weeks more instruction once they get hired by trucking companies. It's Leathers with the surprising theory that trucking thrives during a downturn.

Mark Leathers: The trucking industry is really big right now. With the economic conditions the way they are, the big companies can't afford to warehouse near the materials that they used to. Now these companies when they need something, they need it now, they can't wait on it and it's not setting in the back room somewhere. Everything is trucks. As soon as they call for it, it's on its way.

When companies are being careful during unsettled economic times, they may push the famed "Just In Time" delivery idea to its limits. Having low inventories of parts or products saves money.

But Rosalyn Wilson, a transportation analyst at Delcan Corporation, says trucking goes up when the economy goes up, not the other way around. Still, she says, it's a useful economic indicator.

Wilson: If you actually look at the numbers compared to last year trucking is doing great. You know, 5.9, 10.1 percent increase over previous year, except the previous year was so low, that we still aren't back up to where we were prior to the recession.

The boom at the driving school may stem from a shortage of drivers, as older ones retire. It's calculated the country needs 400,000 new truckers this year and next. First-years can earn into the high 30s annually, if they don't mind the hours, the traffic, or the time away from home.

In Cuba, Mo., I'm David Brancaccio for Marketplace.

Be sure to check out Marketplace's "Future Jobs-o-Matic" for more information on the future of American jobs.

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Follow David Brancaccio at @DavidBrancaccio