Expert Commentary

The truck driver shortage and the trucking industry workforce: 5 studies to consider

We summarize five recent studies that explore major issues facing the trucking workforce, including pay, working conditions and whether the trucking labor market is broken.

truck driver shortage
(Zetong Li / Unsplash)

Industry groups for years have warned of a workforce shortage in trucking, particularly for long-haul truckers who pick up and deliver across state lines. In the year before the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry was short nearly 61,000 drivers, according to the American Trucking Associations, the nation’s largest group representing the industry. The association estimates a shortage of 160,000 drivers by 2028.

The association is the biggest lobbying group in trucking, spending more than $2 million in five of the past six years lobbying federal legislators. Along with over 100 other supply chain trade groups, the association maintained in an April letter to members of Congress that the pandemic has “exacerbated the truck driver shortage, and the temporary closures of state [motor vehicle departments] and truck driver training schools dried up the already fragile pipeline of new drivers entering the trucking industry.”

Aside from an initial rush to hoard household items, the pandemic slowed demand in the U.S. for durable goods (like furniture) and certain nondurable goods (like gasoline) during the first half of 2020. But the reopening of the country has reinvigorated consumers’ appetite for spending.

By weight and value, trucks carry more freight across the country than every other mode combined, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. There were about 1.8 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers in the U.S. in May 2020, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (May 2021 employment estimates won’t be published until spring 2022.)

Heavy trucks and tractor-trailers are vehicles weighing over 26,000 pounds. Those drivers take home a median annual wage of $47,000, compared with about $42,000 across all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That works out to about $22 per hour.

But hourly wage data for truck drivers can be misleading because drivers are often paid by the mile — $200 for a 500-mile haul that takes 8 hours comes to $25 an hour. But if the trucker loses two hours to traffic, the hourly rate for the same haul is $20.

The idea behind a trucker shortage is that there are not enough people to fill the jobs available. The American Trucking Associations blames the shortage on the relatively high average age of truckers — 46 years old — as well as that about 7% of truckers are women, despite women making up half of the national workforce. The association has been a prominent voice in pushing federal regulators to lower the minimum age for long-haul truckers from 21 to 18, to attract younger people into the industry.

Safety advocate groups, like Road Safe America and the Truck Safety Coalition, counter that teenage commercial drivers are more likely to be involved in fatal crashes. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency that regulates trucking nationally, has proposed a pilot program to test whether long-haul truckers under age 21 are less safe.

Industry groups representing drivers, such as the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, the second-biggest lobbying group in trucking, call out retention as the major labor problem in trucking. For them, it’s not that people aren’t interested in driving long-haul for a living, and it’s not that there is a dearth of credentialed drivers. The issue is pay and working conditions. News outlets have documented wages failing to keep up with inflation and long hours away from home as factors affecting employee retention.

Days on the road can take their toll on drivers’ well-being. During a random survey of 316 male truckers at a rest stop near Greensboro, North Carolina, published in 2012 in Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 28% reported being lonely, 27% felt depressed and 21% experienced chronic sleep problems.

Here, we explore five recent studies on the trucking workforce, both in the U.S. and abroad, to inform journalists’ coverage of this labor story. This research breaks down the major workforce issues in trucking, as well as comparisons between trucking in the U.S. and other countries.

A quick note: At The Journalist’s Resource, we usually cover peer-reviewed academic research. There are many peer-reviewed transportation journals — Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Transportation Science and Research in Transportation Economics, to name just a few.

Numerous universities also invest in high-quality transportation research, although it’s not always submitted for formal peer review. They include the University of California, Berkeley, through its Institute of Transportation Studies; the Texas A&M Transportation Institute; and San Jose State University, through its Mineta Transportation Institute, which does use a peer-review process for its research.

The U.S. Department of Transportation also funds research, searchable via the Repository & Open Science Access Portal, known as ROSA P. The Transportation Research Board — part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine — is another source for high-quality research on a range of transportation topics.

What Do Professional Drivers Think About Their Profession? An Examination of Factors Contributing to the Driver Shortage
Chao Ji-Hyland and Declan Allen. International Journal of Logistics Research and Applications, September 2020.

This examination of driver conditions in Europe reveals similarities with conditions drivers experience in the U.S. The authors analyze data from a survey of 111 drivers of heavy trucks in Ireland conducted in late 2018 and early 2019, as well as in-depth interviews with five drivers. Mirroring the issue of the aging trucker workforce in the U.S., most of the drivers surveyed for this research were in their mid-40s to mid-50s.

“This highlights the profession’s relative inability to attract a young labor force,” the authors write. In response to an open-ended question about major questions facing the industry, drivers mentioned “low pay, extensive regulations, pressure to fulfill on-time deliveries and long hours away from home.”

The authors also find the longer drivers are in the profession, the more satisfied they are with their jobs and the more committed they are to keep driving. But no matter their experience level, all drivers surveyed recounted feeling lonely being on the road for long periods of time.

“Because of long hours away from home, social and psychological factors have a significant influence on drivers’ job satisfaction,” the authors write. “All participants referred to the loneliness that they can experience.”

Critical Issues in Trucking Workforce Development
Thomas O’Brien, Tyler Reeb, Deanna Matsumoto and Diana Sanchez. Mineta Transportation Institute, April 2020.

The authors of this white paper conducted a literature review of recent research from academic, peer-reviewed journals, as well as government and industry group sources.

They also interviewed government and private sector industry leaders to better understand workforce development issues in trucking nationally and in California specifically. While vehicle automation could eventually displace thousands of professional drivers, experts interviewed didn’t think that was imminent. In fact, they think demand for drivers will remain high, possibly for decades to come.

“Messaging to prospective drivers needs to reflect this reality to counteract the current inaccurate reporting in the media centered around the demise of the truck driving profession,” the authors write.

They note they conducted their research before the pandemic, so it doesn’t capture COVID-related workforce challenges. Here are other key findings:

  • New truck drivers tend to be in their 30s and previously worked in other fields.
  • Churn may be a leading cause of driver shortages. Many drivers don’t necessarily leave the industry — they simply switch companies.
  • There can be significant barriers to entering the field, including that drivers often foot the bill for their training and licensing.
  • By 2026, there will be a projected 108,400 additional heavy and tractor-trailer drivers nationally, a 6% increase compared with 2016 employment levels.

“Recent research on stressors in the trucking industry point to promoting engagement or essential skills (formerly referred to as ‘soft skills’) to improve relations between dispatcher and driver, and supervisor and driver,” the authors write. “These recommendations may result in better truck driver performance and retention rates by increasing drivers’ loyalty to the company, rather than loyalty mainly to the profession.”

Is the U.S. Labor Market for Truck Drivers Broken?
Stephen Burks and Kristen Monaco. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2019.

This government research further supports the idea that U.S. drivers are committed to staying in the industry, though not necessarily at any particular company. The authors examine national occupational statistics to understand which jobs drivers leave before getting into trucking, and which industries they pursue after leaving trucking. Even when drivers leave the profession, they often move to jobs where they interact with drivers.

“As a whole, the market for truck drivers appears to work as well as any other blue-collar labor market, and while it tends to be ‘tight,’ it imposes no constraints on entry into (or exit from) the occupation,” the authors write.

A tight labor market is characterized by high employment levels and high demand for workers. In heavy and tractor-trailer trucking, the labor market has been tight since 2003, the authors find. This situation tends to push overall wages higher, compared with other jobs requiring similar education levels.

But, as other studies and news reports have found, many truckers still think their pay is too low. The authors note that working conditions spotlighted by industry groups and the news media are concentrated in a specific segment: for-hire, long-distance trucking.

“Surprisingly, the occupational attachment of truck drivers is actually a bit higher than that of some other blue-collar occupations,” the authors write. “This finding suggests that the market for truck drivers works about as well as that for other blue-collar occupations, and that, broadly speaking, we should expect that if wages rise when the labor market for truck drivers is too tight, the potential for any long-term shortages will be ameliorated.”

In other words, the authors expect the trucking labor market to act like any other market: If companies have a hard time hiring truckers, upping pay should attract enough drivers to meet freight demand.

The Endemic Issue of Truck Driver Shortage: A Comparative Study between India and the United States
Neha Mittal, Prashanth Udayakumar, G. Raghuram and Neha Bajaj. Research in Transportation Economics, November 2018.

The authors identify common traits of truck driver shortages in the U.S. and India, “two distinct nations” dealing with more freight than truckers.

Driver age is a major issue in both countries. In the U.S., this is driven by baby boomers leaving the trucking labor market and some drivers turning to other job opportunities, such as those offered by ride-sharing companies, according to the authors.

In India, younger workers are reticent to enter trucking because the industry there is unorganized. Truck drivers often are not covered by minimum wage laws, for example. The profession also generally carries less social status than it once did.

“While truck drivers in the early years following India’s independence were respected for their disciplined driving behavior, today’s drivers have lower socio-economic status in the society,” the authors write.

In the U.S., driver interactions with supervisors affect turnover.

“Drivers complain that their supervisors do not even know their name — they object saying: ‘they’re not a truck and a trailer, they’re a person,’” the authors write. “Another common complaint is that their manager does not value their ideas and suggestions.”

One suggestion the authors offer to attract drivers: Better marketing from companies.

“Trucking and logistics companies should invest in creating programs and advertisements that can help the society understand the need and importance of truck drivers and how they are the ‘heroes’ in our day-to-day lives,” the authors write.

Trucker Shortage as Government Failure
Jeremy Kidd and Joseph Padgett. Loyola University Chicago Journal of Regulatory Compliance, March 2016.

Trucking is federally-regulated in the U.S., for safety reasons. Drivers must be adequately trained so they know how to operate their large vehicles while sharing the road with passenger cars. There are rules on how many hours truckers can drive in a given period, when they have to take breaks, and more.

The authors of this paper argue the precision of hours-of-service and other regulations can make it difficult for drivers to drive at the best times. They note that a driver due for rest who is unloading at 11 a.m. on a Friday may have to wait until Monday morning rush hour to get back on the road.

Because drivers are typically paid by the mile, the faster a driver completes their run, the more they end up making per hour. Peak traffic congestion can cost them.

“Society need not abandon the notion of regulation entirely … However, the example of the trucking industry should encourage caution; regulations should be seen as only a corrective measure, applied when a specific flaw can be identified and a well-defined solution can be crafted,” the authors conclude.

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