As Congress seeks solutions to a supply chain crisis that’s leaving shelves empty and consumers frustrated this holiday season, one suggestion keeps recurring: Address the trucker shortage.
The American Trucking Associations says there’s a need to fill 80,000 trucker jobs to satisfy America’s demand to move freight. The association asserts that the jobs pay well but there haven’t been enough quality candidates.
That theory stands in stark contrast to the views of an organization representing independent drivers, as well as those of at least four academics who study the industry.
They say there isn’t really a shortage at all.
High turnover and an inefficient supply chain that often leaves truckers waiting for hours without pay has given an impression of a shortage when what’s really needed is working conditions that retain drivers, they say.
“The driver shortage this year has become a fault line in schisms that were maybe already in the industry,” said David Correll, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Transportation and Logistics.
Correll said he understands that the trucking industry feels there’s a shortage. However, he said, the perceived shortage is “not a headcount shortage … it’s just the people they have are really underutilized.”
At a recent hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Correll testified that U.S. Census data indicates there are 1.8 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers in the United States. But they’re underutilized in part because long-haul drivers drive for an average of 6.5 hours every day, he said. The rest of that time, he said, is spent waiting to be loaded and unloaded.
If that time driving were increased by 18 minutes a day per driver, he said, it would meet that need. “I think we’re really squandering a lot of that workforce’s time,” he said.
Bob Costello, the trucking associations’ chief economist, said the problem is far more complicated.
Demographics — including a shortage of female drivers and an aging workforce, as well as consistent churn in the industry as drivers hop from one company to the next — is contributing to the shortage, Costello said. The pandemic has added to the problem, he said, with fewer truckers entering the workforce because of shuttered licensing agencies and driver training centers.
“I wish it was as simple as all we have to do is keep raising pay and it will go away,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is, there are many different reasons for the shortage.”
Citing the shortage, the ATA successfully fought for a provision in the bipartisan infrastructure law that created a pilot program to allow drivers younger than 21 to be part of apprenticeship programs allowing them to operate in interstate commerce, which was previously against federal regulations.
Many economists and analysts pin the perceived shortage on a lack of retention, saying the industry isn’t doing enough to keep drivers.
Michael Belzer, a professor of economics at Wayne State University, said the issue is a direct outgrowth of the 1980 decision to deregulate interstate trucking. He said deregulation and the resulting collapse of Teamster representation of most truckers led to declining wages and poor job conditions that have effectively pushed drivers out of the industry.
“It’s true they can’t get drivers,” he said of the trucking industry. “That’s not a shortage. If you don’t pay minimum wage, you shouldn’t be shocked that you can’t hire drivers.”
He said truck drivers are largely exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act, meaning many are not getting paid overtime. When truckers are forced to sit for hours waiting to drop off or pick up loads, they’re often not paid for that time. And, because they eat the loss, there’s no particular incentive for others to speed up the process. “If all their time had to be paid, their time would be valuable,” he said.
Many are also classified as contractors, meaning they’re barred from protections other employees might have.
The disconnect has highlighted a divide between groups like the ATA — which represents 37,000 members, including trucking companies ranging from large motor carriers to smaller operations — and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents owner-operators and professional drivers.
The former argues that the problem is one of finding enough high-quality truckers to fill the need to move freight, with the problem particularly acute in long-haul trucking.
The latter says the problem is centered on how truckers are treated.
“Most of the very people saying we have the shortage know exactly how to correct the turnover problems,” said Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “They just choose not to do it.”
Steve Viscelli, an economic sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, called the shortage a “myth” aimed at helping the trucking industry get fewer regulations and more public subsidies.
“What they really need is really cheap, really flexible drivers,” he said of the industry.
“The bottom line is [drivers] end up recording 30 hours, 40 hours less a week than they actually work,” Viscelli said, adding that counting those underreported work hours, many new truckers actually make less than minimum wage.
Paid to wait
Costello dismisses that notion. “I would challenge that person to go talk to a trucking company,” he said, saying that finding quality drivers with clean driving records who can pass drug tests has become an issue.
He said many truckers in the long-haul sector are, in fact, paid for their time spent waiting, although it often kicks in after two hours.
Spencer, of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said adding more drivers would only exacerbate problems at clogged ports.
“The supply chain crisis that’s taking place at the ports of LA and Long Beach is, for all intents and purposes, the direct result of the amount and the volume of cargo that’s been trying to be squeezed through these ports,” he said, saying that volume “has just way surpassed ability of those ports to handle it.”
“Where is the benefit of putting more drivers in that line that can’t get loaded or unloaded?” he said.
Ellen Voie, president and CEO of Women in Trucking, a nonprofit that seeks to recruit women into trucking, said the industry has to tell prospective drivers what they’re in for. Driving, she said, is “a lifestyle and not a job.”
She said some companies are “doing it right” by putting drivers on a salary with overtime if their drivers exceed 40 hours. “There are best practices out there,” she said. “But the industry is slow to change.”
She suggests the issue is one that needs to be solved by industry.
“We don’t really want the government imposing more regulations,” she said. “The industry needs to solve this.”
Costello, however, argues the empty shelves are indicative of larger supply chain problems. “There’s tons of pressure points all the way through” the system, and the truck driver shortage is one of those pressure points, he said.
“If the driver shortage continues to get worse, that’s our future,” he said, warning that empty shelves may be a sign of the future. “I think it’s sort of a foretelling if we don’t figure out this driver shortage thing.”
Rodney Morine, an independent truck driver based in Opelousas, La., and alternate board member at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association whose father was also a trucker, said there are plenty of drivers, but “the problem is there’s not plenty of companies that are willing to compensate the driver adequately.”
He and many of his colleagues work 70-hour weeks but are paid as much as the average 40-hour-week worker, with many stretches of the workday — the hours spent waiting and not driving — unpaid. But airline pilots, he said, are paid for those hours when they sit on the runway or inspect the plane to ensure it’s safe. He said the pay and poor working conditions spur many drivers to opt to work construction or at a Walmart warehouse instead.
“If you’re not making any money, at least you’re at home not making any money,” he said.