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Experts say reports of an American truck driver shortage are overblown

Business Insider logo Business Insider 12/5/2021 gkay@businessinsider.com (Grace Kay)
One high school is offering a truck-driving elective for students amid a widespread trucker shortage and an aging workforce. Mint Images/Getty Images © Mint Images/Getty Images One high school is offering a truck-driving elective for students amid a widespread trucker shortage and an aging workforce. Mint Images/Getty Images
  • The supply-chain crisis has become synonymous with a shortage of truck drivers.
  • Eight experts told Insider the shortage is not as significant as it has been portrayed in the media.
  • The number of truckers in the industry are near pre-pandemic levels and more truckers are becoming business owners than ever before.

As US shoppers face empty shelves and skyrocketing prices while goods pile up at key US ports, many are quick to blame a national truck driver shortage, but experts say the shortage has been overblown.

The notion of a trucker shortage is a narrative decades in the making that has long been a point of hot debate in the industry, but more recently the idea has become a scapegoat for shipping delays, experts say.

"Somehow companies have found a way to pin the entire crisis on the backs of truck drivers," Billy Randel, a long-haul trucker and the organizer of the Truckers Movement for Justice, told Insider. "This notion of a trucker shortage has been circulated to the point that it's just become accepted by news outlets, companies, and customers alike — even without the data to back it up."

Earlier this year, the American Trucking Association (ATA) reported a shortage of 80,000 truckers. Insider spoke with seven experts, both academic and within the industry, that said the trucker shortage has been misconstrued, and is modest at best. An ATA spokesperson did not provide comment before publication.

In November, monthly employment levels in the industry were within 1% of pre-pandemic levels, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

What's more, the shortage, which has been cited as a reason for the port backlogs, only impacts one portion of the industry — long-haul trucking. Local drivers who move goods out of the ports, as well as short-haul drivers in general, are in surplus. There are over 16,000 more short-haul truckers than before the pandemic, per BLS.

While experts say there aren't fewer truckers in the industry since the pandemic started, consumer-buying habits have led to an uptick in demand on the supply-chain. 


Video: What's behind the historic national truck driver shortage? (CNBC)

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"When there's a sharp increase in demand it takes any industry anywhere from a quarter to a year and a half to catch up," Stephen Burks, professor of economics and management at the University of Minnesota Morris, told Insider. "It's a natural lag, but the market is already catching up."

Several trucking groups, including the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), push back against the notion of a shortage, saying the industry is instead suffering from a long-standing retention issue. Long-haul trucking has had a turnover rate of over 90% since BLS began recording the issue. Pat Nolan, C. H. Robinson's vice president of operations for North America, said the logistics group has long been trying to improve retention.

"The picture of the marketplace has not fundamentally changed," Burks said, noting the pandemic failed to impact the turnover rate. "Long-haul truckers can spend weeks on end away from home. It's never been a very attractive job."

Experts' estimates on how many truckers are missing from the industry vary, but none come close to 80,000. Nolan said his company estimates there are about 20,000 fewer long-haul truckers than in 2019, down from 35,000 earlier in the pandemic. Other experts like Burks and Jason Miller, professor of logistics at Michigan State University, said the number is closer to 10,000, not counting the record number of new trucking companies that were formed in the second quarter of 2021.

Miller told Insider that a lot of the trucking companies are likely facing difficulty finding drivers because many have shifted to building their own businesses.

"COVID-19 stimulus and high spot-freight rates have created the perfect environment for truckers to become business owners," Miller said. "That amount of entrepreneurship is unprecedented and that inherently is going to create some disruption."

The issue is not entirely constrained to the trucking industry either. Experts say inefficiencies at drop-off and pickup locations inhibit truckers' time on the road. David Correll, a research scientist at MIT's Center for Transportation and Logistics, found that truckers only spend about 6.5 hours driving per day, even though federal safety regulations let them drive for 11 hours a day.

He testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last month that 40% of US trucking capacity is underutilized daily. Correll's study found that adding just 18 minutes of driving time to every existing truck driver's day would have the same effect as hiring 80,000 more drivers. At the time, ATA said the report failed to address the nuances of the industry.

Ultimately, experts agree a large part of the issue is treating truckers better.

"I think if consumers really understood what it was like for the truck drivers who deliver all their goods, they might be a little embarrassed or ashamed," Correll told Insider. "There's no way to over-emphasize how difficult their job is, but now that we have this spotlight on the industry, maybe people can try to make it better."

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