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Is there a truck driver shortage? BLS study renews debate

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Washington — The validity of a perceived shortage of commercial motor vehicle drivers is again in the spotlight after a recent analysis conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A study published in the March edition of BLS’ Monthly Labor Review examined data from the agency’s Occupational Employment Statistics survey and the Current Population Survey. The researchers determined that “truck driving is a relatively stable occupational choice.” Any alleged shortage should be confined to long-haul truck drivers, not the industry at large, the researchers note. However, they acknowledge a lack of information specific to this segment in the aggregate data.

Although overall employment in the industry dropped during the 2007-2009 economic recession, driver levels rebounded thereafter. In 2003, approximately 2.9 million truck drivers were in operation, including 1.5 million heavy trucks drivers. By 2016, those figures had grown to nearly 3 million and 1.7 million, respectively, while drivers’ average nominal earnings increased.

Researchers Stephen Burks, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota at Morris, and Kristen Monaco, associate commissioner in BLS’ Office of Compensation and Working Conditions, concluded that workers who left the industry were “driven in a predictable way by earnings and hours.”

“As a whole, the market for truck drivers appears to work as well as any other blue-collar labor market, and while it tends to be ‘tight,’ it imposes no constraints on entry into (or exit from) the occupation,” the analysis states. “There is thus no reason to think that, given sufficient time, driver supply should fail to respond to price signals in the standard way.”

However, an American Trucking Associations economist with related research expertise finds flaws with the researchers’ understanding of the trucking industry. ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello, whose organization has publicized the perceived shortage through a series of alerts and reports over the years, challenges BLS’ findings in a March 20 press release, asserting that Burks and Monaco “demonstrated some basic misunderstandings about the trucking industry generally and how we at ATA and in the industry discuss the driver shortage.”

Costello affirms that ATA recognizes the size and diversity of the industry and emphasizes that the discussion of the shortage has been isolated to long-haul and over-the-road truckers. He adds that the BLS report ignores ATA’s stance that the shortage hinges on “the need for qualified drivers,” not a lack of overall applicants.

“Unlike other ‘blue-collar’ jobs the authors compare truck drivers to, motor carriers cannot simply hire anyone to do the job,” Costello said in the release. “There are many barriers to entry for new drivers: age requirements, [commercial driver’s license] standards, strict drug and alcohol testing regimes, and, perhaps most importantly for many fleets, safe and clean driving records.

“Carriers repeatedly say it isn’t that they don’t have enough applicants for their open positions – they do. What they do not have is enough applicants who meet the demanding qualifications to be hired. In some cases, carriers must reject 90% of applicants out of hand because they fail to meet at least one of the prerequisites to drive in interstate commerce.”

Further, Costello recommends the researchers adjust their conclusions for the work-life balance hardships many truckers face.

“In addition to the misunderstandings about trucking, the authors’ own concession that wages are going up significantly, as motor carriers are unable to hire quality drivers, undercuts their own conclusions,” he said. “This alone suggests there is a systemic issue with getting enough labor in the for-hire truckload driver market.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association backs BLS’ research. In a March 20 press release, President and CEO Todd Spencer said the findings support a long-standing OOIDA claim that the alleged shortage is a “myth.”

“Our greatest concern about the perpetuation of the myth is that the misinformation is used to push agendas that are harmful to the industry and highway safety,” Spencer said in the release.

 

OOIDA suggests more attention be paid to some large fleets’ struggles to retain drivers. The organization’s research foundation notes that wages have decreased for drivers at larger carriers, while more drivers have opted to join smaller fleets or become owner-operators.

In October, an ATA report showed a 98% turnover rate for carriers with more than $30 million in annual revenue. Still, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration estimates that 449,000 new drivers earn entry-level CDLs each year.

Also in October, the driver shortage ranked No. 1 in an American Transportation Research Institute survey of the top issues affecting the trucking industry for the second straight year. ATRI is the research arm of ATA.

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