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Not Enough Drivers: Understanding and Navigating Today’s Truck Driver Shortage (Part 1 of 5)


In recent months, images of congested ports have filled the news and prompted calls to action. As ports expanded their hours to reduce the backlog of ships waiting to be unloaded, a less visible bottleneck entered the spotlight.

A lack of truck drivers and equipment to clear the ports and move goods inland is capturing extensive attention from regulators, freight owners, and the media.

In this first of a five part series about understanding and navigating today’s truck driver shortage, we consider differing perspectives about the number of drivers.

The shortage of drivers could be interpreted as being part of the pandemic-related “Great Resignation,” but that would be an overly simplistic explanation. Driver shortages have been reported as a chronic supply chain problem for nearly two decades.

The American Trucking Associations (ATA) first documented a shortfall of Class 8 tractor-trailer drivers in 2005. The shortage eased during the Great Recession but spiked as the economy rebounded.

The ATA Driver Shortage Update report from October 2021 estimates the shortage will hit a historic high of just over 80,000 drivers in 2021. The ATA predicts the shortfall will double to 160,000 drivers by the end of the decade.

In contrast, there are some who believe the driver shortage is a myth.

Leaders of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a trade association representing the interests of independent truckers, regularly argue that the problem is high driver turnover rather than a shortage of qualified drivers. They point to long-haul carriers as the source of this turnover problem.

The Teamsters Union and some economists suggest the problem is depressed wages and difficult working conditions. Raising truck driver wages faster than the wage rate growth in other industries will help the tight labor market correct itself within a reasonable amount of time, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics economists.

Other trucking experts note that the pandemic-fueled spike in consumer purchases affects the industry’s ability to keep up with current volumes. It’s a supply-demand imbalance, according to Kenny Lund, executive vice president at Allen Lund Company, LLC, headquartered in La Canada, CA.

“We have more trucks and more drivers on the road than in the past, but (consumer) demand is outstripping capacity,” Lund notes.

Regardless of one’s perspective on the cause—driver shortages, turnover challenges, or volume surges—the effect is the same.

Source: Blue Book Services, Inc.

Dr. Brian Gibson is executive director of Auburn University’s Center for Supply Chain Innovation.