NPR’s Planet Money pokes holes into truck driver shortage claims

May 25, 2021

Mark Schremmer

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Truck driver shortage? What truck driver shortage?

The American Trucking Associations has claimed for decades that the industry is suffering from a nationwide shortage of truck drivers. They’ve done such a good job of it that you will commonly hear lawmakers toss the claim around as if it’s fact. But when someone actually takes the time to analyze the data, they frequently come to the conclusion that there is no truck driver shortage.

The most recent example is a newsletter from NPR’s Planet Money segment with the headline “Is There Really a Truck Driver Shortage?”

Planet Money reporter Greg Rosalsky spoke with ATA and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, looked at the numbers and appeared to discover what OOIDA has been saying for decades.

“There is no shortage,” OOIDA President Todd Spencer told Planet Money. “It’s just simple math. If every year there are an excess of over 400,000 brand-new drivers created, how could there possibly be a shortage?”

Rosalsky’s article pokes holes into ATA’s arguments and questions its “solution” of allowing under-21 drivers to enter long-haul trucking.

“ATA has been making this argument since the 1980s, yet store shelves somehow remain stocked,” Rosalsky wrote. “In a capitalist system, where you can pay people to do basically anything, how is it even possible to have a worker shortage for multiple decades?”

The Planet Money article also cites a 2019 study published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that concluded the evidence does not support a labor shortage and that increasing wages could alleviate any issues with recruitment and retention.

Driver shortage vs. driver retention

The reality is that large fleets have a retention problem. The turnover rate for mega carriers is typically at 90% or greater. Often, new truckers leave within months because of the long hours away from home combined with a lack of pay.”

“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,” Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told Planet Money.

Rosalsky acknowledges that the argument over whether the industry has a driver shortage or a driver retention problem is about much more than word use.

“The debate over whether to call this a retention problem or a shortage may seem like mincing words,” Rosalsky wrote. “But it matters for the solution.”

If you believe OOIDA, it means the solution is to pay drivers more and to provide better working conditions. If you believe ATA, it means the solution is to let teenagers haul freight all over the country.

“Frame the issue as a retention crisis … and the onus falls on the industry to make long-haul trucking more attractive as a profession.” LL

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Mark Schremmer, senior editor, joined Land Line in 2015. An award-winning journalist and former assistant news editor at The Topeka Capital-Journal, he brings fresh ideas, solid reporting skills, and more than two decades of journalism experience to our staff.