Supply chain issues, driver shortages push the industry to ‘edge of a cliff’ says ATA CEO

February 1, 2022

Ryan Witkowski


With supply chain issues dominating the mainstream news, some in the trucking industry believe there’s no end in sight.

In an appearance on FOX Business on Jan. 18, Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, claimed the industry as a whole is nearing its breaking point because of a driver shortage. Meanwhile, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association says the problem isn’t an inability to find drivers but rather to retain them because of low pay and poor working conditions.

“I think we’re at the edge of a cliff right now,” Spear said. “Candidly, I think a year of policies that have led us there generally stem from rewarding people not to return to work.”

Spear cites a slow return to work during the pandemic – which isn’t unique to the trucking industry – as one of the driving factors in the perceived driver shortage.

“We’ve got a chronic shortage of talent, not just in trucking, where we’re short 81,000 drivers, but across every sector of employment. Anybody who’s experienced this standing in line at the grocery store or flying knows that everyone right now is experiencing this slow return to work,” Spear said. “That is exacerbating the supply chains ability to meet demand. We’re moving more with less people – even less equipment in many instances – and it’s really having an impact.”

In a report from the ATA in Oct. 2021, they state their estimate of 81,000 drivers short is “the difference between the number of drivers currently in the market and the optimal number of drivers based on freight demand.” Furthermore, the ATA claims that, “at current trends, the shortage could surpass 160,000 in 2030.”

OOIDA Executive Vice President Lewie Pugh contends that an absence of good jobs – rather than a lack of qualified drivers – is fueling the perceived shortage. This issue, according to Pugh, isn’t a new problem. 

“What we have is a chronic shortage of pay, training, parking, fair treatment of drivers, and sensible regulations,” Pugh said. “These are the shortages that are pushing drivers off the cliff and driving them to leave the industry. As someone who drove a truck for over 2.5 million miles, this has been a problem my entire career. Honestly, it just continues because no one wants to do the hard things to make it better to keep drivers in the industry.”

To address what ATA feels is a driver shortage, Spear said carriers should focus their recruiting efforts – especially among women and minorities – to help ease some of the burdens of a taxed supply chain.

“We’ve got to get more aggressive in recruiting people. We’ve got to get more women. We’ve got to get more minorities. We’ve got to bring talent in,” Spear said. “This is a good-paying job. We’re talking mid to high fifties with benefits without a college degree to come along with it. So if you want to earn a good living, this is the way to do it. And it will make a difference in our economy and our ability to climb out of this COVID rut.”

Based on information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s widely reported that women make up 6% to 7% of all drivers in the industry.

According to membership data from OOIDA, 5% of their members are women and 21% of members identified themselves as something other than Caucasian. African Americans represent 10% of that total, while Hispanics represent 4%.

Casting a wider recruiting net would certainly be a step in the right direction toward addressing some of those inequities, but Pugh contends that putting more drivers into an already flawed system does little to correct the current supply chain issues.

“It is easy to say, ‘poor us we need more cheap labor to take advantage of.’ Let’s stop this nonsense and start addressing the real problems that the men and women behind the wheel continue to ask for,” Pugh said. “Trucking is a skilled profession and until the carriers and feds start treating drivers this way, we will continue down this road of high turnover in the industry, which it the real problem.” LL