Can We Retire the Myth of the Truck Driver Shortage?

Jeffrey CarrJuly 23, 2021 5 minutes

Have you heard that a shortage of truck drivers exists and it's only getting worse? According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), the American trucking industry finds itself in need of 61,000 drivers. To make matters worse, within 7 years, that number could balloon into hundreds of thousands of truck drivers short of what the industry needs to function.

Can we expect empty store shelves as a result of this shortage? Is it possible that the industry will grind to a halt due to delays in machinery delivery? The answer is without a doubt, no. Like other crises, such as the folks who periodically put out reports saying that we're 5 or 10 years away from not having enough potential recruits to fill our military, the trucking shortage is a manufactured problem. Large trucking concerns, represented by the ATA use these impending crises to push politicians into supporting their preferred policy outcomes.

Even 450,000 New Truckers a Year Can't Stop the Trucker "Shortage"

According to government sources, state governments issue roughly 450,000 commercial driver licenses every year. Some back-of-the-envelope math shows that over a given 10-year period, 4.5 million people possess the basic training and licensing to operate a commercial vehicle. There are only 3 million truck driving positions in the United States in 2021.

Even if the industry replaced every single truck driver over a ten-year period (it doesn't), they should still have 50% more aspiring truck drivers than they need. Recently, some reporters, trade organizations, and even the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) have begun pushing back against ATA's driver shortage claims.

This pushback caused the ATA to modify its argument. When it comes to delivery drivers and truckers who work in defined geographic areas that allow them to get home every evening, there is no shortage. Turnover in those jobs is no different than in any other blue-collar profession, like construction or warehouse work. The problem filling positions only seems to affect long-haul trucking.

Long-Haul Trucking Staffing Is an Issue for Certain Companies, Not the Industry As a Whole

Unlike the rest of the trucking industry, long-haul trucking, where drivers spend days or weeks away from home, has a turnover rate of around 90%. This means that in a given year, a company must replace 9 out of 10 truckers. Another way that people frame this turnover rate is that for every 10 jobs, 3 of them require a new driver 3 times each year. This high turnover contributes to 100% of the so-called truck driver shortage.

While long-haul truckers make more than their local counterparts, the difference isn't as much as one would think. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for long-haul truckers is $47,000 a year, about $7,000 more than the average driver makes. While that may sound like a decent wage, when one considers what long-haul truckers must endure, it quickly becomes clear that there are easier ways to make a living.

First, long-haul truckers routinely work between 60 and 70 hours per week. Thanks to industry lobbying, the overtime rules that apply for darn near every other job in the country do not apply to truck drivers. Instead, hours of service regulations dictate how much time a trucker can work, and exempts truckers from overtime rules at the same time. In addition, many truck drivers spend days or weeks away from their families. If long hours and living out of the cab of a truck weren't difficult enough, add in the copious amount of paperwork that a driver needs to do in order to drive, and it quickly becomes apparent that, given what truckers typically make, long-haul trucking is a tough life.

The BLS report indicates that while turnover may be high in this segment of the industry, the likelihood of drivers sticking with this tough life still responded to wages. Put more simply, drivers were willing to put up with all the headaches when they made enough money to offset the challenges. Further, some industries, such as fast food, thrive with turnover rates that exceed 130%. Despite having greater problems retaining workers, when was the last time anyone heard of a "fry guy shortage?"

The Trucker Shortage Myth Serves the Industry as a Cudgel Against Elected Lawmakers and Regulators

By many accounts, the ATA's claim of a trucker shortage dates back to the 1980s. For the longest time, few outlets bothered to look into whether the industry's claims were in fact real. I am certainly among those who repeated the trucking shortage lie, without bothering to look into it more deeply.

It's likely that the ATA continues to push the trucker shortage because it serves its members' purposes. The media aren't the only ones hoodwinked by the mythical shortage of truck drivers. Plenty of politicians have the wool pulled over their eyes. Congress is currently debating the DRIVE-Safe act, which among other things lowers the minimum age for interstate truck drivers from 21 to 18.

While some politicians support the measure for reasons of fairness to adults under 21, many cite it as a tool to combat the trucker shortage, which doesn't actually exist. The industry supports the measure, because it increases the pool of available drivers, putting downward pressure on driver compensation. If a lie helps an industry garner support for its preferred laws and regulations, it's easy to see why it persists through the decades. No politician or regulator wants to be the person who makes a decision that risks groceries not getting to the store shelves.

Why the Trucking Shortage Myth Matters

I doubt anyone is too worked up that an industry trade group concocted a myth, which both the media bought and serves their purposes. Leaving those issues aside, the rate at which many companies cycle through long-haul drivers should worry the general public.

Everyone knows that the most dangerous drivers are those who lack experience. This observation applies to truckers, as well. We can infer with high turnover in the long-haul segment of the industry, staffing requires fresh drivers, who lack experience. When I spoke about this phenomenon with truck accident injury attorney Michael Grossman, he related that one of the biggest red flags he sees in most truck accident injury and wrongful death investigations is poor hiring practices. Drivers with checkered pasts, no experience, and limited training get thrown into the deep end of the driving pool. They're expected to swim, but the turnover data shows that most of them sink. At best, these drivers leave the industry unscathed and without causing a serious crash. However, the worst does happen and innocent people bear the costs.

It doesn't have to be this way. Even within the long-haul segment of the trucking industry, dozens of companies stand out from the rest. They don't have the same turnover issues that the rest of the industry does. They manage to combine a generous salary and benefits, with lifestyle accommodations, which make a tough job a little easier.

These companies also show that there isn't a trucker "shortage," even in the long-haul segment. There's just a shortage of truckers willing to deal with the tough conditions and poor wages that many companies desire to pay. That's not a problem that requires congressional action: it's a problem that only the trucking companies themselves can solve. It can be done. Many in the industry already have a solution.