Truck Driver Shortage: Beyond the numbers

 In Industry News

Last month we noted that despite the continuing shortage of drivers, freight rates are actually falling, in a trend that seems set to continue at least for the medium term. Today we’ll look more deeply at the persistent scarcity of drivers in the context of a recently published study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

BLS finding: Higher pay rates will solve the problem

Trucks are estimated to have carried 61% of total U.S. freight in 2017, equating to 3.5% of GDP. The trucking industry is a vital part of the U.S. economy — and the U.S. lifestyle —so why aren’t drivers clamoring to fill the multitude of available positions?

Many industry experts have pointed to a relatively low pay scale as the reason for the lack of new drivers entering the industry to replace the aging driver population. Kristen Monaco of the BLS and Stephen Burks, an economics professor at University of Minnesota-Morris, studied this question and published their findings in March 2019.  Monaco and Burks found that higher driver wages did lead to an increase in the number of new hires, especially for those who will work longer hours for higher pay. Even with the longer expected hours for truck drivers, the authors contend that economic incentives work in this labor market. They also found that annual trucking wages for the period 2003–2017 exceeded those of other blue-collar jobs.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association agrees with the results of the study, stating that the truck driver shortage is a myth that would be easily resolved with higher wages.

ATA: Not quantity but quality

However, the BLS study contradicts recent reports that increased driver pay has not mitigated the shortage, and some contend that the study’s focus on pay has resulted in myopia. According to ATA chief economist Bob Costello, the issue is not with the number of applicants for the driver positions, but with the qualifications of the applicants. Carriers reject 90% of applicants, Costello says, because they do not meet at least one of the criteria for drivers.

The comparison to other blue-collar jobs is not accurate because carriers cannot hire just anyone to drive their trucks. The role of truck driver falls somewhere in between blue collar and white collar, with candidates needing to meet the requirements set out by the industry and the individual carrier before they are even looked at. Barriers to entry such as age requirements, CDL testing, a clean driving record, and drug and alcohol testing eliminate many candidates at the outset.

Quality, not quantity, is the real issue at the core of this persistent dearth of drivers. Another factor not taken into consideration by the study is the driver lifestyle — long hours and even days away from home, poor nutrition, irregular sleep patterns — which is also a significant reason for the shortage, according to the ATA. For this reason, Costello questions the validity of the study.

That the freight industry needs more drivers is clear. But instead of just looking at numbers, maybe the focus should be on making the role attractive to the type of people who are likely to be qualified to fill it.

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