How big is trucking’s driver shortage? The answer will vary depending on the source, but according to the American Trucking Associations, maybe it’s not so big.
The shortage is “qualitative,” not “quantitative,” ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello said in a statement Wednesday on a sharp increase in truckload driver turnover.
“I believe that in terms of raw numbers, the trucking industry is currently short somewhere in the range of 20,000 to 30,000 drivers,” Costello said.
That’s a much lower estimate than the 90,000-driver shortage seen by research firm FTR Associates, which the firm believes is still a “minor problem” for carriers.
Since the recession, various analysts have forecast a shortage as high as 200,000 to 300,000 truck drivers, based on strong projected growth in freight demand.
More than 1.5 million Class 8 tractor-trailer drivers were employed by for-hire trucking companies in the U.S. in 2011, according to the Labor Department.
Freight demand in 2012 is much weaker than many economists expected in 2010, however, which is why shippers so far have avoided a truck capacity crunch.
Costello’s use of the terms qualitative and quantitative implies not a lack of people who could drive trucks but a lack of those whom carriers are willing to hire.
According to the latest employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 42,000 truck drivers joined industry payrolls last year, a 2.9 percent increase.
However, that means almost 185,000 CDL-carrying truckers who earned a living hauling freight over the highways in 2007 have yet to return to their seats.
Many of those former drivers may have taken other jobs, and some may be waiting until truck driver pay rises before accepting the keys to a Class 8 tractor.
But some may no longer meet the qualifications of carriers looking to hire drivers. Those trucking companies are looking for squeaky clean safety records.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s CSA enforcement initiative ties motor carrier safety scores, available online, directly to driver performance.
Carriers are vying for drivers with the best safety records and shun those whose accident records or violations could affect CSA scores and scare off customers.
A future surge in freight demand could exacerbate the driver problem and turn a qualitative shortage into a quantitative one, Costello warned.
That puts more onus on truckload carriers and their customers to try to resolve the problem, starting by improving driver retention and compensation.
For individual carriers, the shortage is real if they can’t fill open seats. In the third quarter last year, Werner Enterprises came up 38 drivers short.
“We worked as hard as we could to fill every truck,” Derek Leathers, president of the 7,300-truck carrier, said at a conference in May. “It’s just that difficult.”