Is the Trucker Shortage a Myth?

Trucks driving on highway

Trucking, a staple of the U.S. economy, includes a range of different job descriptions and duties; heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers, light truck or delivery services drivers, and driver/sales workers all comprise this evolving, increasingly tech-heavy sector.

In the United States alone, as of 2017, there were 1.75 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers, 877,670 light truck or delivery services drivers, and 427,000 driver/sales workers in the field, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Employment Statistics (OES). Disproportionately high clusters of truckers can be found in Texas and New Mexico.

Driver shortages in the trucking field have been a hot topic in the media lately, with most outlets focusing on a dearth of heavy and tractor-trailer drivers, especially in relation to long-haul trucking. But new data suggests that this may be more complicated than it seems.

Why Do People Believe There Is a Trucker Shortage?

Among the many sources to cover the trucking shortage are The Washington Post and NPR — reliable, respected outlets. It’s unlikely that such outlets are attempting to mislead the public or hoodwink industrial professionals, but the data itself may be problematic, according to a recent report from Barron’s. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) points out,

“The persistent issues localized in the TL [long-distance truckload (TL) motor freight] segment are not visible in the aggregate data and require a distinct analysis.”

According to the BLS, much of this is due to the fact that the trucking industry is actually a “composite of labor market segments.”

Trucking Services Costs

Barron’s argues that if the trucking industry was sorely in need of workers, businesses could expect to see sharp upswings in the costs of trucking services. However, Barron’s states that this has not been the case. In the recent report, released March 14, author Matthew C. Klein, writes:

“The absence of labor shortages also explains why the data do not indicate meaningful increases in the cost of truck transportation services. The producer price index for long-distance trucking has grown just 1.6% a year since the start of 2008. While prices are up about 4.3% a year on average over the past three years, this largely reflects rising fuel costs. Prices fell by about 1% from the end of 2011 to the beginning of 2016. In fact, prices are down more than 2% just in the past couple of months, thanks to the recent decline in oil prices.”

The trucking industry appears to be growing in line with the rest of the economy, with no major price increases to indicate a very short supply — which would be the case if there were far too few workers to fill the jobs.

Trucking Pay Rates

Just as one would expect to see a rise in trucking costs in the event of a major labor shortage, one could also expect to see a substantial — even if short-term — boost in pay for truckers, both to retain current workers and to attract new ones to the field and shore up the gap between supply and demand. However, the data does not show this to be the case.

As of March 2018, trucking pay rates had risen at nearly the same rate as other blue collar work in the U.S., as well as the rest of the private sector.

Trucking Turnover Rate

One statistic often cited when discussing the trucking shortage is the extremely high turnover rate in the industry, which said to be close to 100%. However, Barron’s argues that much of this turnover rate simply represents drivers moving between trucking companies — not leaving the industry altogether.

This turnover rate also includes some workers who opt to take managerial positions relevant to the industry. Also, Barron’s states that closer inspection of the data reveals that truckers are actually slightly less inclined to leave their jobs compared to other jobs with similar workforce demographics.

Trucking Automation and Job Loss

Despite these complexities, one should not assume that there are no threats to the trucking industry on the horizon. Trucking automation, for instance, is sending shockwaves throughout trucking companies and investors across the country, and some advanced technologies in this area, such as “platooning,” may become widespread as early as this year.

How these changes will impact the trucking workforce remains to be seen, but, in the meantime, industry professionals will be keeping a close eye on the data — however complicated it may be.

Image Credit: Jaroslav Pachy sr / Shutterstock.com

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