U.S. Truck Industry Shortage May Be Worse Than Experts Say

The truck driver shortage plaguing the U.S. trucking industry may be worse than experts are saying. A report recently published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics claimed the truck driver shortage may be more nuanced than the industry claims. But chief economist for the American Trucking Association Bob Costello says that isn’t true.

The report, published in the BLS Monthly Labor Review, was written by the associate commissioner for the Office of Compensation and Working Conditions at the BLS Kristen Monaco and University of Minnesota economics professor Stephen Burks.

In the report, Monaco and Burks said the high turnover and labor shortages harming the trucking industry are more nuanced than the numbers show. Even with 500,000 reefer trailers operating in the U.S., the ATA estimates that the trucking industry is currently short at least 50,000 drivers.

That shortage is expected to increase as older drivers retire or take on other jobs. One survey by the AARP found that 34% of older Americans would like to work from home.

“While we do use ATA data to identify one segment of the trucking labor market (long-distance truckload motor freight) that has experienced high and persistent turnover rates for decades, the overall picture is consistent with a market in which labor supply responds to increasing labor demand over time, and a deeper look does not find evidence of a secular shortage,” said Monaco and Burks in their report.

Costello says that conclusion isn’t correct. “We don’t agree with that,” said Costello. “Trucking is very different than almost all other blue-collar jobs. I think they made some critical errors.”

Costello said Monaco and Burks had difficulty isolating the over-the-road segment of the industry. It’s in that segment where the shortage is, he says.

“They’re saying that the truck driver shortage was not a long-running problem,” said Costello, “that there might be years of it being a problem, but in the long run, it functions like any other blue-collar job. That I’m saying is that is not true, in my opinion.”

Monaco said she and Burks analyzed their data with a lot of caveats. “A lot of times articles might point to the labor market for truck drivers and just keep referring to a shortage,” she said. “For economists, if you hear the word shortage over and over again applied to the same market, it implies that the market never clears.”

Monaco currently chairs the Transportation Research Board’s Standing Committee on Trucking Industry Research and is a member of the TRB Trucking Freight Systems Group. Burks also chaired the standing committee for three years and was a truck driver and handler for 12 years.

Monaco and Burks said they have been researching the industry together for 20 years. The two presented a paper at the TRC 2016 annual meeting containing the same conclusions as their latest research paper.

However, Costello says that ATA researchers have also been quantifying the driver shortage since 2005. Aside from the disappearance of the shortage during the Great Recession in 2008, Costello says the truck driver shortage has been a systemic problem.

“When we look at the supply side of drivers we’re using demographic data,” said Costello. “That is forecasted out, not by us, but by the Census Bureau. Our forecast of the driver shortage is a warning, a trend forecast if things do not change.”

On the demand side, Costello says, the ATA is looking at how much freight there is and how much labor is needed to optimally move that amount of freight. The ATA then matches the numbers. When the ATA last data-matched in 2017, the industry needed 51,000 more tractor-trailer drivers.

Filling the gap in the trucking industry shortage is crucial to the U.S. economy — the trucking industry has an annual revenue of $676.2 billion.

“When we released the top industry issues in October, we said the driver shortage has remained an issue for years,” said Rebecca Brewster, president of the American Transportation Research Institute. “Its ranking has risen or dropped based typically on what was going on in the economy.”

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