ATA spins its take on ‘driver shortage’

November 2019

John Bendel


Time for more about the “driver shortage” from the folks who invented it.

Here’s a recent news release from the ATA:

ARLINGTON, Va. – Today, the American Trucking Associations released its latest examination of the driver shortage, finding the industry needed 60,800 more drivers at the end of 2018 to meet the country’s demands for freight services.

Hey, ATA! I found those drivers!

In 2018, the first dozen truckload carriers on Transport Topics’ Top 100 Largest For-hire Carriers cycled through more drivers than that. Hundreds of other truckload carriers cycled through thousands more. They recruited them, they qualified them, they hired them, and then due to the tough nature and frustrations of the job – including low pay – the carriers lost them.

There, ATA, are your 60,800 drivers – and many more. You had them, you lost them. How can a 1,000-truck carrier hire 900 drivers every year, lose most of them, and still claim there’s a driver shortage?

That’s like a dairy store putting milk shipments in a warm cabinet, having most of them spoil, and then claiming there’s a milk shortage. That would be no milk shortage, and there is no driver shortage.

So why invent one? The ATA and its big truckload members have used the “shortage” to scare governments for a long time.

For more than 20 years now, the ATA has declared a driver shortage, pointing to the incredible number of drivers it has to qualify and hire each year. Yet for all those years, the freight got delivered and the industry grew.

A few months ago, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published an article that convincingly argued there is no driver shortage. The ATA responded with a news release as condescending as it was ludicrous.

“The trucking industry is large and diverse,” the ATA began. “ATA has long recognized this when we discuss the driver shortage – repeatedly emphasizing that the shortage is generally contained to one segment of our industry: the over-the-road or long-haul, for-hire truckload segment. The authors (of the Bureau of Labor Statistics article) go out of their way to say their data could not tell the difference between drivers in this segment and other drivers.”

I should hope not. They all have CDLs and drive for a living, sometimes even the same kinds of trucks. Private fleet drivers can drive truckload. LTL drivers can drive truckload. And truckload drivers – the most stalwart drivers in the most grueling segment of all – can drive anything, anytime, anywhere.

According to the ATA, truckload drivers are different because they can be on the road for days at a time. Other workers go home at night. Well, yeah. That’s a requirement of the job, not a difference in drivers. There is no difference between truckload drivers and other drivers. There is only one pool of CDL drivers.

It’s the truckload industry that’s different. Truckload, and only truckload, has turnover rates of 90%.

The ATA then goes on to complain the Bureau of Labor Statistics authors don’t understand how hard it is to find drivers who can qualify, what with “age requirements, CDL testing standards, strict drug and alcohol testing regimes and, perhaps most importantly for many fleets, safe and clean driving records …  In some cases, carriers must reject 90% of applicants.”

The ATA is diverting your attention here. This is not about applicants. We’re talking about the drivers that carriers hire and lose every year – every single one of them qualified and already hired.

The ATA closes its arguments asserting there is a “systemic issue with getting enough labor in the for-hire truckload driver market.”

As we know from the multitudes who qualify, enter and then run as fast as they can from the industry, there is more than enough labor.

But there is a “systemic issue.” That issue is a business model that makes crushing demands on drivers while paying nothing like adequate compensation – all those well-publicized, incremental raises of 2018 notwithstanding.

The ATA’s rebuttal of the BLS paper and its ongoing claim of a “driver shortage” are specious, which according to The Free Dictionary means “plausible but false.”

I prefer another definition from the same source: “gilded and perfumed but inwardly rotten.” LL


John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon, and longtime truck writer, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer for New York Times. There’s more, but in short, his insight and matchless style of writing makes “Gizmos and Gears” a runaway reader favorite.