In November of last year, the American Trucking Association (ATA) listed truck driver shortage as the number one issue for the industry for the third year in a row. The organization estimates that the industry is currently short 60,000 drivers, and may face a shortfall of 100,000 in the next five years. Large truckload carriers are particularly concerned about the truck driver shortage, as they face turnover rates of 96%, while smaller companies sit at 79%.
While this lack of drivers is cause for concern, some question whether “shortage” is the correct way to identify the issue. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) published an analysis of the labor market for truck drivers earlier in 2019 and determined that while it is tight, it is not facing a shortage, and is in fact behaving comparably to other blue-collar labor markets.
What qualifies as a driver shortage?
In economic terms, a shortage is a state that will eventually respond to normal market forces – raising wages will typically increase the supply of drivers as the jobs become more attractive, and the market will eventually balance. It is unusual for a shortage to last more than a decade. However, the ATA has been declaring the presence of a truck driver shortage since 2005, and industry complaints about one extend back as far as the 1980s. The BLS’s study of the trucking industry found that annual wages are, on average, higher than wages in comparable blue-collar industries, and movement into and out of this career was consistent with those industries as well. This suggests that the market is behaving naturally, and the shortfall is caused by other factors.
Exactly what those factors are, however, continues to be debated. Industry experts, company executives, and truckers themselves all have different opinions on where the problems lie and how to fix them. The ATA’s proposals focus on training and recruitment, looking to encourage more women and minorities to join the field, as well as to allow younger drivers to make interstate trips.
The trucking industry is very much dominated by men, particularly older white men. While it has improved in recent years, women, people of color, and LGBTQ people represent a small percentage of truck drivers. Women, for example, make up less than 7% of drivers, despite being 20% less likely to be involved in accidents. The industry as a whole still faces discrimination issues, and many women and minorities feel unsafe entering it. Trucking companies are therefore looking to encourage more people from these groups to become drivers in order to help fill vacancies.
The ATA is also pushing to change the laws preventing adults age 18 to 20 from being interstate truck drivers. The current law requires drivers to be at least 21 before they can drive between states. This restricts work opportunities for those looking to become truck drivers immediately after leaving high school, making them more likely to consider other career paths instead. The ATA hopes that changing this law will bring more people into the industry and reduce its truck driver shortage.
Some leaders in the industry argue that lack of drivers isn’t the problem, but rather a lack of efficiency. More than 20% of the miles driven every year are “empty” miles, when a truck has no load. Truck drivers also spend an average of 2-3 hours waiting for their trucks to be loaded or unloaded, time which they are typically not paid for. By finding ways to use trucks and their drivers more efficiently, companies could reduce their need for more drivers. Eliminating long, unpaid wait times could also improve truck driver turnover.
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Salaries and overtime
While some truck drivers earn upwards of $80,000 a year, many others earn salaries that are little more than half that amount. Many trucking companies offer sign-on bonuses, but drivers say those bonuses often come with too many strings attached – drivers may be required to meet challenging performance goals in order to quality for them.
Pay may have risen in recent years, but many workers still aren’t receiving a higher than average wage, meaning there’s less incentive for them to choose truck driving over other occupations. In addition, interstate drivers are not subject to the overtime provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act, and therefore don’t have to be compensated extra for working over 40 hours a week in an industry where 60+ hour work weeks are common.
The ATA is lobbying for regulatory changes in age limits and training requirements, with the hope that both will encourage new people to enter the industry. There are other regulation changes that could be beneficial as well, however, such as changes to the overtime rules mentioned above. Providing overtime pay for long work weeks would make the profession more appealing. Some people within the industry are also concerned that lowering the age limit for interstate driving would not be beneficial, as it would drive down salaries and result in more young, inexperienced drivers on the road.
Some people are proposing a different tactic to solve the industry’s truck driver shortage: automation. Waymo (a subsidiary of Alphabet) has been testing autonomous trucks in locations such as Arizona and San Francisco. The technology is still in development, but may be an option further down the road. However, there would still need to be a human in the truck cabs in order to satisfy safety concerns, so companies would still need to attract people to fill that position.
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No universal solution
There is no consensus on how to solve the industry’s truck driver shortage, or even on whether the shortage exists in the first place. Not only does the BLS disagree with the ATA on the matter, but industry leaders are divided as well, with some company owners arguing that lack of drivers is not the main problem. In addition, many of the industry’s truck drivers themselves argue that there is no shortage at all, and companies that pay their employees well are not seeing the recruiting and turnover problems that other companies do.
Regardless of the exact source of the issue, there are many ways to improve the situation, and they don’t necessarily involve bigger recruitment drives. Better pay, overtime, efficiency, and safety measures could go a long way to incentivize workers to enter and remain in the trucking industry. It remains to be seen what strategies trucking companies choose to adopt, and how well those solutions will play out.
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