ATA’s driver shortage numbers fall short

November 1, 2023

Mark Schremmer


When the American Trucking Associations tried to convince Congress that allowing 18-year-olds to operate in interstate commerce was necessary, the organization pointed to a shortage of truck drivers as the reason.

And when ATA testified at a House subcommittee hearing in September, the trucking group again used the “driver shortage” to justify the deployment of driverless trucks.

Fearful of potential supply chain disruptions that a driver shortage could cause, many lawmakers have supported ATA on these issues despite the obvious safety concerns that both carry with them.

But what if there isn’t a driver shortage and never really was one?

A recent report from the OOIDA Foundation uses ATA’s own numbers to demonstrate that there is not a driver shortage in the trucking industry.

“The American Trucking Associations has claimed a perpetual driver shortage for nearly 40 years,” the OOIDA Foundation wrote. “Such an ongoing shortage, however, is not possible. The historical market pattern of the trucking industry provides overwhelming evidence that ATA’s claim of a long-term shortage is without merit.”

Although ATA has never demonstrated the methodology it uses to arrive at its numbers, a quick review of the group’s yearly reports shows large inaccuracies in its projections.

The OOIDA Foundation points out that ATA’s 2015 report predicted a driver shortage of 73,500 in 2016.

“However, the 2017 and 2019 reports placed this number at only 36,500, equating to a difference of 37,000,” the OOIDA Foundation wrote. “They were off by 50%.”

That 2015 report also estimated a shortage of 120,000 in 2018 and 160,000 in 2023. Later reports indicated that the shortage for both years was 60,000.

Now, ATA has pushed back its projection of the shortage reaching 160,000 until 2031.

“These large discrepancies, coupled with a lack of transparency, call into question ATA’s policy prescriptions for a problem that simply does not exist,” the OOIDA Foundation wrote. “ATA’s shortage predictions are neither reliable nor valid. In 2023, ATA submitted written testimony to Congress that the industry would need to hire 1.2 million drivers over the next decade and the shortage would reach 160,000 by 2031. As should be obvious by now, there is no driver shortage. ATA’s projections are grossly inaccurate at best and purposely misleading at worst. Bad information leads to bad policy.”

It can’t be ignored that efforts for under-21 drivers and driverless trucks benefit the bottom line of large fleets, which are the companies that ATA represents. The “driver shortage” is being used to justify both.

If it seems OOIDA has its own reasons to refute a driver shortage, realize that the Association isn’t alone in those claims.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2019 that there was no evidence to suggest a driver shortage.

Earlier this year, FreightWaves called the driver shortage a myth. ATA pushed back but then didn’t accept offers to participate in a debate.

If there’s really a driver shortage, then why not debate? But here’s an even better question: If there’s been a driver shortage for decades, wouldn’t companies be bending over backward to improve the occupation by increasing wages and benefits?

Truck driver salaries have increased some in recent years, but not at the rate you would expect if there were a drastic driver shortage.

“Those who perpetuate the notion of a driver shortage ask you to believe that basic laws of supply and demand simply don’t work,” OOIDA President Todd Spencer said in a 2018 video. “They say we’ve got a shortage, but if there’s a shortage in anything, it will be reflected in the price or value of that particular service. Incomes for drivers adjusted for inflation going back to 1980 would be twice what they are right now, or more, if they had just kept pace with inflation.” LL