Since the 1980s, the lobbying group representing the country's largest trucking companies, American Trucking Associations (ATA), has been claiming that there is a huge shortage of workers willing to drive trucks. However, recent investigations have drawn into question the motivation for those claims.
One reason for the recent attention on this subject was exaggerated reporting on the lengths that a Texas trucking company is willing to go to attract new employees. While reporting suggested that entry-level truckers could begin making $14,000 per week, it left out the part about truckers needing their own trucks and certification and the fact that the $14,000 number is an estimate rather than a salary.
Of course, if there is no trucker shortage, then trucking companies like the one in Texas don't need to offer fantastical entry packages.
According to a 2019 study published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (USBLS), while the trucking labor market is "tight", the market isn't so "broken" that it would result in a 50-year shortage of workers. Truckers and truck driver representatives have echoed this sentiment.
"There is no shortage," Todd Spencer, the president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, told National Public Radio. Spencer's organization, representing more than 150,000 U.S. truck drivers, has come into conflict with the ATA due to its interest in increasing trucker pay and improving trucker living conditions.
So, if there is no shortage, why does the myth persist?
Claiming that the trucker labor force is drastically undersupplied makes it easier for the ATA to push through legislation favorable to its members. For instance, the DRIVE-Safe Act currently making its way through Congress would allow 18-year-old truckers to transport trucks across state lines. Under current regulations, drivers must be 21-or-older to drive trucks between states.
"The driver shortage has been a persistent issue in our industry for many years," chief economist of the ATA, Bob Costello, told reporters. "We have numerous examples of fleets of all sizes raising pay, increasing bonuses and increasing benefits, like time at home, in response to the shortage."
Costello further claimed that the alleged shortage has been worsened by the pandemic and new regulations requiring more reliable drug testing of drivers, though ATA does support the tougher drug testing requirements.
The trucking labor market may be tight, but it's also massive. According to the USBLS, there are more than 2 million Americans working as truckers, and the government issues more than 450,000 new commercial driver's licenses each year.
"It's just simple math," Spencer told NPR. "If every year there are an excess of over 400,000 brand-new drivers created, how could there possibly be a shortage?"
Still, Spencer acknowledges that the trucking industry has a problem. Rather than a shortage, he points to turn-over rates of more than 90% seen amongst truckers for decades. This means that 9 out of every 10 drivers a company hires will leave within a year.
Long hours, tough working conditions, strict schedules, and the unavoidability of a poor diet all make trucking a difficult profession to love. Long-haul truckers might make good money, roughly $50,000 per year, but they often have to work 60 to 70 hours every week while staying in hotels or on the side of the road.
On top of the conditions, trucker pay is also a deterrent. According to the Department of Transportation, the average trucker is paid 52.3 cents per mile, rather than getting an hourly wage. This also means that truckers aren't paid for the laborious process of loading and unloading their cargo, or the time they spend away from home but not driving.
Trucking is also a surprisingly dangerous job. A truck driver is 10 times more likely to die on the job compared to other U.S. workers.
"We have millions of people who have been trained to be heavy-duty truck drivers who are currently not working as heavy-duty truck drivers because the entry-level jobs are terrible," a sociologist studying trucking at the University of Pennsylvania, Steve Viscelli, told NPR.
According to Viscelli, those conditions are only getting worse. Through their lobbying efforts, Viscelli says that big trucking companies are "systematically degrading trucker working conditions."
On the other hand, according to Spencer, companies that treat their drivers well don't see the same incredibly high, and costly, turnover.