The U.S. Truck Driver Shortages – Fact or Fiction?

By this point, everyone in the trucking industry is aware of the term truck driver shortage. For the last four decades, the industry has battled this alleged uphill battle.

Ever since 2005, the American Trucking Associations has been releasing reports on truck driver shortages. For 2008, the deficit was reported to be 20,000. This number was somewhat reduced with the 2008 crisis due to the reduction in freight volumes. As soon as the industry recovered, though, the shortage returned. By 2018, the shortage was allegedly near 60,000 drivers.

However, on the other hand, some say the shortage is “fake news.”

So, is this shortage real and will affect the industry if left to follow its current trend?

What’s Causing the Alleged Truck Driver Shortage?

There could be many causes of the alleged truck driver shortage in the U.S. The demographic of the workforce, the unhealthy lifestyle, and the stressful working conditions are but a few.

Trucking is quite tricky, as you may be well aware. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, ATA announced that the U.S. shortage of drivers is nearing 60,000. Furthermore, their estimations for 2024 was for the shortage to grow to 100,000 and 160,000 by 2028.

Remember, these statistics were announced before the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of the closing of the DMVs, the situation should have gotten even worse.

However, as the COVID pandemic persisted for a longer period after the shutdown, the seasonally adjusted number of truck transportation employees fell by 1,2 to 1,43 million in May as compared to April 2020. Or, to put it bluntly, the demand for long hauls decreased in this period, effectively erasing the shortage.

But, if history taught us anything in 2008, this is the calm before the storm.

Possible Causes of the Driver Shortage

There are multiple possible causes for the trucker shortage. The most prominent ones are:

  • The requirement for young drivers to be 21 to drive interstate
  • Less than 10 percent of truckers are women
  • CPM is the industry standard
  • Unrealistic expectations from new drivers

The 21 Years to Drive Interstate Dilemma

The current regulation states that a driver must be 21 years or older to drive interstate. Therefore, this creates a gap of three years in-between potential drivers getting out of high school and the requirement of the entry-level trucking job, over-the-road.

However, on the other hand, while 65% of the fleets claim they will consider hiring entry-level drivers, not many of them want to hire persons under the age of 21 to drive heavy trucks.

Less than 10 Percent of Truckers Are Women

Similarly to the skepticism of hiring drivers younger than 21, the reception is mixed when it comes to whether hiring specific untapped groups, like women, former convicts and veterans, are cost-effective for carriers.

The truth is all of these are untapped potential for the industry, and it needs to find a way to reach these groups and increase their demographics into the truck driver workforce, with or without a truck driver shortage breathing down their neck.

CPM vs. Hourly/Weekly Pay

The endless debate into what’s better for truckers CPM or static pay still goes on as you are reading this. Both have their pros and cons. CPM is great for truckers that are continuously on the road with little off-the-road on-duty hours. Hourly pay is excellent for truckers that have lots of off-the-road on-duty hours.

The problem is when it comes to the actual CPM for a trucker since living the trucker life is quite expensive. Calculating the real CPM a trucker needs to actually be profitable shows the reason why nobody wants this $50k/year on average job.

A guaranteed minimum weekly pay is the way to go, but whether this will help the industry reduce the alleged trucker shortage remains to be seen.

Unrealistic Goals for New Drivers

Although very easy to fix, fixing this problem will undermine all carriers’ internal progression process. 

It is the general rule that the worst jobs go to new drivers, and most of those are over-the-road jobs. This system, although flawed, has helped companies retain some of their senior drivers. Giving the best positions to new drivers would defeat the progression process, and seasoned, loyal drivers will have nothing holding them back from quitting the job. Doing this will increase the already alarming turnover rates in the industry.

However, unrealistic goals in the scope of years of experience for beginners to consider them for the job are points all carriers can reflect on and hopefully abandon.

Bureau of Labor Statistics: The Truck Driver Shortage Is Fake News

In March 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics published its monthly labor review, but this time, it was with a twist. The name of the monthly review is “Is the U.S. labor market for truck drivers broken?” with this appended at the beginning:

“The trade press covering the U.S. trucking industry often portrays the U.S. labor market for truck drivers as dysfunctional, citing persistent driver shortages and high levels of firm-level turnover and predicting significant resulting constraints on the supply of motor freight services.”

In this report, the BLS goes in-depth to analyze the driver shortage. This analysis concludes that the trucking industry has about the same numbers as other blue-collar professions.

The BLS argues that the ATA interprets high turnover rates as truck driver shortage – and that there isn’t a shortage of drivers after all.

If anything, the BLS analysis suggests that trucking is doing fair better than other blue-collar jobs, as not many truckers decide to leave the trucking industry outside of retirement.

BLS Data on Employment: Truckers vs Other Blue-Collar Workers
BLS Data on Employment: Truckers vs Other Blue-Collar Workers

The Trucker Shortage Became the Default Cause of Every Problem

Whenever something terrible happens in the industry, everyone that holds some weight in the industry points their finger at the driver shortage.

This is the case when ATA looks at the high turnover rate the industry has. They look at the turnover being the same as a shortage of truckers. On the other hand, the BLS accepts that there is a high turnover rate, but it does not classify it as trucker shortage.

This didn’t stop the ATA to leverage the alleged shortage to push its agenda, though. It has been at the front of each argument ATA has made to relax regulations, like the Hours of Service requiring changes because it will make the shortage worse.

So, What’s The Trucker Shortage?

The so-called trucker shortage is an employee’s reaction to a job that is unattractive. 

This is explicitly evident in long-distance hauling. There is a lot of competition in OTR carriers. Most of them have similar costs and can’t really differentiate prices in the market. Or, to put it bluntly, there is a lot of work for long-distance hauling, and carriers do not really care about competing with each other by offering competitive pays.

Many of the prospective truckers who enter the industry with this particular haul type find the job’s benefits to be unattractive. The pay is not great, and the working conditions are abysmal.

Given the rigidness of the system carriers use, it cannot adjust to demand spikes. Most of these hauls are being moved under a contract, and the truckers are all accounted for, given the contract requirements.

When there is an increase in demand, the client will go to carrier one, ask for ten drivers the carrier doesn’t have. If carrier one cannot provide the ten drivers, the client goes to a second carrier asking the same, and if the second one does not provide the drivers, they go to a third, fourth, etc.

The reality is that the demand is ten drivers across the board. However, each of the carriers will report a shortage of ten drivers, and if three were contacted before the client closed the deal, that’s 30 drivers – not 10.

Trucking is Not on the Safe Side Though

Trucking is an occupation not many people can handle. And the current regulation being pushed does not help much either. 

Trucking is not regulated by the Fair Labor Standards Act but is controlled by the Hours of Service rules. The critical difference is that HOS does not account for overtime hours, and each hour a trucker drive is being paid a flat figure. If it were under the Fair Labor Standards Act, each hour past the 40 hours mark would be paid time-and-a-half.

The shortage becoming a reality is not a question of if, but when. As it currently stands, trucking is just not attractive to enough people to keep the industry rolling and the shortage at bay.

Yes, a trucker makes $50k+ a year, but how much of that goes into expenses? Did you know that truck stops, the only place a trucker can buy something, is more expensive than other alternatives by around 20%?

It doesn’t really matter if the HOS rules get relaxed a bit, like with the recent Split Duty Pilot program. At its core, the HOS is a regulation concerned with safety on the road, not the pay a trucker receives for a job.

Whether the shortage is real or not, if things remain as they are at the moment, the already old trucker demographic will retire, and there will be no one to replace them.

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