Some experts say trucker shortage is overblown

The images are startling. Cargo ships lined up offshore, waiting to dock and unload their cargo.

America is in a supply chain crisis and many fingers are pointing to a shortage of U.S. truck drivers.

The American Trucking Associations, the country’s leading industry trade group, estimates the driver shortage at 80,000.

Business Insider recently talked to eight logistics experts, both academic and within the industry, that said the trucker shortage has been overblown and is modest at best.

“Somehow companies have found a way to pin the entire crisis on the backs of truck drivers,” said Billy Randel, a long-haul trucker, and the organizer of the Truckers Movement for Justice. “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,” he told the publication.

Numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show that monthly employment levels in the trucking industry were within one percent of pre-pandemic levels in November.

The article also pointed out that local drivers, whose who move goods out of the ports, as well as short haul drivers, are in surplus. According to the BLS there are more than 16,000 more short-haul trucker drivers on the road now that before the pandemic.

Stephen Burks, professor of economics and management at the University of Minnesota, said a sharp increase in consumer demand has created a short-term shortage in some markets.

“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,” he said. “It’s a natural lag, but the market is already catching up.”

Several trucking groups, including the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), say the issue is more about the industry having a retention issue than a driver shortage. Pat Nolan, C.H. Robinson’s vice president of operations for North America, told Business Insider that the logistics industry is trying to improve retention.

“The picture of the marketplace has not fundamentally changed,” Nolan 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.”

The BLS says long-haul trucking firms have a 90 percent turnover rate.

Todd Spencer, OOIDA’s president, said efforts to fund federal training for drivers is not a good idea.

“What they’re proposing here is using tax dollars to provide training to people that realistically will not pursue this as a career. It will be something that they will try, and many will burn out quick,” he told MarketWatch.

“If you’re going to use tax dollars — somebody else’s money — to make an investment in somebody, you want it to be an investment that pays off long term, and this simply won’t. To use words others might, this is little more than corporate welfare.”

In late November, 15 Republican governors announced they would take steps to alleviate the widespread supply chain disruptions that have grown in recent months.

Much of what the governors proposed focuses on loosening trucking industry regulations, with the goal of getting freight moving more quickly. But they put forward some other measures as well.

Overall, their actions have been limited, and many follow the authority specifically granted to states from the federal government, which takes the lead regulating interstate commerce.

“From coastal ports to inland ports to road and rail, our states can take action to address workforce shortages and prevent bottlenecks, logjams and other transportation issues,” the governors wrote in a statement. “If we can get government out of the way, our trucking industry can safely do what it does best: move.”

The supply chain bottlenecks will clearly become a campaign issue for the 2022 mid-term elections, according to a poll for Consumer Brands conducted by Morning Consult.

The poll, which questioned voters in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and New Hampshire, found that roughly 7 in 10 respondents have experienced shortages at grocery stores, and around half said that supply chain issues have had a “major” or “big” impact on their ability to get critical products.

“Once invisible to consumers, the pandemic and holiday shipping crunch have unmasked the supply chain and made it kitchen table conversation,” said Consumer Brands Association President Geoff Freeman. “Voters have exhausted their patience with years of government inaction, and elected officials can’t afford to lose sight of the supply chain after New Year’s Day.”