Driver shortage? Fleets say yes, but many drivers disagree.

Driver shortage? Fleets say yes, but many drivers disagree.

Photo by Jim Park

It doesn't matter where you read it, reports on the driver shortage are always followed by strings of comments from drivers hotly denying there's such a shortage. In their view, it's a shortage of pay, or a shortage of drivers willing to work for what they consider inadequate pay. Wrap it up and spin it any way you want; trucking's labor woes won't be solved by blaming its staffing difficulties on failed drug tests or general disinterest in the job.

We have been talking about a shortage of drivers since at least the mid-1990s (that's when I first became aware of it.) Experts looking at the issue through a demographic lens back then were predicting a shift away from the typical sources of drivers, and especially those with agricultural or mechanical backgrounds. That prediction certainly came to pass.

Fewer young men were growing up on farms and in traditional post-war upbringings where the father worked at a factory and the sons often followed. Those young men were ideal candidates for driving jobs as they got older and bored with life on the farm or the assembly line. Since then, there has been a shift toward more academic upbringings, which saw more and more young people heading off to college than through the factory doors.

So, yes, traditional sources of drivers began drying up as early as 25 years ago. And trucking has been crying about the driver shortage ever since. But like the boy who cried wolf – or Chicken Little, who, in a case of misinterpreted data, was convinced the sky was falling – the world around trucking has been hearing this call for so long, it no longer has any impact.

Frankly, I think the outside world has come to its own conclusions about the driver shortage and has found trucking's claims lacking credibility. How can a shortage have existed for more than two decades without a solution? It's become a self-perpetuating myth. And that seems to be the way drivers feel.

Ask any working driver and they will tell you, it's not a shortage of drivers, it a shortage of...

Ask any working driver and they will tell you, it's not a shortage of drivers, it a shortage of pay and good working conditions.

Photo by Jim Park

Just read some of the comments accompanying David Cullen's story, "ATA: Truck Driver Shortage Threatens Supply Chain," or this report from The comments from drivers (38 comments alone on Cullen's story as of this writing) all call foul on claims of a shortage. Almost every comment speaks to how working conditions have deteriorated over the years, how pay has remained stagnant relative to inflation, and how the regulatory burden have all conspired to make the cab of a truck an unpleasant and unrewarding workplace.

It comes as utterly no surprise to drivers that some fleets are experiencing real difficulties in seating their trucks. Most of the comments reflect huge dissatisfaction with their pay – if not the actual mileage rate, then how it's calculated. Drivers trapped at shippers don't earn much, if anything. Drivers caught in traffic earn a fraction of what they would earn at highway speed. Drivers waiting for almost any reason, including dispatch, generally go unpaid despite the fact that the hours-of-service clock ticks inexorably on, limiting what they can earn on a daily basis. And then there are the inevitable shortages in mileage and discrepancies in how pay is calculated. Drivers having bad weeks can go home with fractions of what they could have earned had things unfolded with fewer hitches.

Carriers got away with that approach back when drivers were a dime-a-dozen. But many carriers haven't changed their ways, and it's no longer trucking's dirty little secret that truck driver take-home pay can be as unpredictable as the weather. You can't budget with unpredictable paychecks, and that is obviously seen as a significant problem for a lot of people.

One solution is to pay drivers by the hour, or with a salary with a guaranteed minimum based on availability and readiness for work. That takes the onus for the foul-ups off the drivers and gives the fleets a darned good reason to work harder to make sure things don't go off the rails too often.  

I once heard the chief executive of a very large Midwest-based truckload carrier, speaking at a widely attended conference, call hourly driver pay "economic suicide" for a carrier. He, better than most, would understand the magnitude of wasted and unproductive time that he'd be on the hook for with such a policy. So instead, he downloads those problems to his drivers. 

It's no surprise that his company hasn't appeared over the past 10 years on the Best Fleets to Drive For list, compiled annually by CarriersEdge and the Truckload Carrier's Association, while other carrier names appear on that list year after year.  

Clearly the driver shortage is felt by some fleets more acutely than others

'Qualified' Drivers

Some organizations like to point out that the true shortage is of qualified drivers, as opposed to, I guess, non-qualified drivers – though I'm not sure what that may actually be. Qualified is someone ready to be go to work, has all the required documentation, can and has passed a drug test, and has some previous experience. In other words, a cheap hire. In this case, non-qualified might be a freshly minted CDL, with all the above qualifications except previous experience.

Apparently, as we learned recently, it may seem cheaper to pilfer a competitors' drivers than to develop your own – at least until the competitor decides to fight back. It was reported last week that CRST Expedited successfully sued Swift Transportation for more than $15 million for poaching drivers, back in 2017, who had recently graduated from an in-house training program and were locked into employment contracts. I guess those proved to be not-so-cheap hires.

If only drivers were jumping into trucks as fast as they are jumping out.

If only drivers were jumping into trucks as fast as they are jumping out. 

Photo by Jim Park

Then there's the large swath of drivers who have recently attended driving school and earned a CDL but can't get hired because they lack experience. Granted, not every carrier has finishing programs in place and can provide the stewardship necessary to bring these folks online as revenue-earning and productive employees, but I'm sure the numbers of such non-qualified drivers would make a small dent in the number of so-called empty seats.

How else are we supposed to replace the legions of drivers who are retiring our just giving up on the industry if nobody will give the new ones their first job?

All that said, it's gratifying to see that more and more carriers are finally getting it. We're seeing driver pay rise, and we're starting to see some creative compensation packages tied not just to productivity, but also to availability and readiness. Delays and dwell times at customers are usually not the drivers' faults, and some carriers are recognizing this and paying drivers in such a way that they aren't hurt financially because of it. That takes a lot of pressure from the driver and places it, frankly, where it belongs – between the customer and the carrier.

This year, the two carriers were named best overall in the Truckload Carriers Associations’ 2019 Best Fleets to Drive For Contest were both first-time winners, though each had placed in the top 20 several time previously.

Hudson, Illinois-based Nussbaum Transportation took top honors in the small carrier category with a fleet of 400 tractors. It combined both high- and low-tech solutions to create a balance across its programs. The company scored high in several categories, including having an industry leading scorecard and mobile app, a simple, effective driver outreach schedule, and a formal career path and certification program.

Springfield, Missouri-based Prime received the honor for the large carrier category. Prime’s fleet includes 7,200 tractors but was noted for maintaining a personal touch despite its size. The company hosts a variety of committees, social groups and educational offerings, providing contractors with a range of options for personal and professional development. New for this year, the company implemented a new program in partnership with Missouri Good Dads, to help drivers build and strengthen family connections while away on the road.

Both companies were also noted for their safety and retention numbers as well as satisfaction scores well above 90%.

I'm sure we could find drivers with axes to grind with both these carriers, but satisfaction numbers above 90% suggest those companies are doing something right.

I don't see the wisdom in griping publicly about our industry's labor woes. There can't be many people in this country who aren't aware that we have difficulty finding help. The message those public declarations send is that trucking is not a desirable place to work, and that's sure not going to pique anyone's curiosity about coming to work here, never mind spending several thousand dollars on a driving course, just to be told they are still unemployable.

I do not believe there is a shortage of drivers. There are several million people out there somewhere with CDLs, but a large number of them have decided to make a living in some other industry.

The American Trucking Associations added this footnote to a recent analysis of the driver shortage: "Of the 7.8 million people employed throughout the economy in jobs related to trucking activity, 3.5 million were truck drivers in 2018. There are over 10 million CDL (commercial driver’s license) holders in the U.S., but most are not current drivers, and not all are truck drivers. There are roughly 3.7 million trucks on the road today that require a driver to have some sort of CDL. The Department of Labor says there are 1.8 million heavy and tractor-trailers drivers. We are only focused on the over-the-road tractor-trailer drivers."

Even Peter, the boy who cried wolf one too many times, learned his lesson. If you always tell lies, people will eventually stop believing you; and then when you’re telling the truth for a change, when you really need them to believe you, they won’t.

About the author
Jim Park

Jim Park

Equipment Editor

A truck driver and owner-operator for 20 years before becoming a trucking journalist, Jim Park maintains his commercial driver’s license and brings a real-world perspective to Test Drives, as well as to features about equipment spec’ing and trends, maintenance and drivers. His On the Spot videos bring a new dimension to his trucking reporting. And he's the primary host of the HDT Talks Trucking videocast/podcast.

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