By Victor Reklaitis
Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association's president says his industry's issue is the retention of truckers, not a labor shortage
A bipartisan group of 60-plus U.S. lawmakers is generating headlines thanks to their letter on Wednesday that sounds an alarm about a "nationwide truck driver shortage" and calls for the Labor Department to fast-track grants for unemployed Americans who want training to become truckers.
Todd Spencer, head of a trade association for independent truckers, has heard this kind of pitch before, and he's not having it.
"What they're proposing here is using tax dollars to provide training to people that realistically will not pursue this as a career. It will be something that they will try, and many will burn out quick," the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association's president told MarketWatch in an interview.
"If you're going to use tax dollars -- somebody else's money -- to make an investment in somebody, you want it to be an investment that pays off long term, and this simply won't. To use words others might, this is little more than corporate welfare."
OOIDA has been pushing its view that there isn't a shortage of truck drivers, saying the issue is the retention of existing drivers, as many long-haul truckers quit after finding their compensation isn't sufficient for the long hours and weeks away from home.
Truckers are increasingly in the spotlight because Americans are dealing with a range of shortages and inflation as the U.S. economy snaps back from shutdowns tied to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. One main weak link in supply chains right now is the trucking industry, as MarketWatch has reported.
See: How trucking became the weak link in America's supply chain
Also read:This is how America's booming demand for goods shattered the supply chain
The American Trucking Associations, or ATA, which lobbies for big carriers and other players in the trucking industry, says there is a shortage of drivers, estimating that a record high of 80,000 truckers are needed at the moment.
The ATA didn't respond to requests for comment, but the lobbying group's CEO and president, Chris Spear, talked up its shortage figures on Wednesday during a House hearing, saying the "annually reported numbers are sound and accurate." Yet OOIDA's president sees it differently.
"When they say there's a shortage, you have to ignore basic math. Every year, states license over 400,000 people to drive big trucks," Spencer said.
"So whether they say there's a shortage of 60,000 or 80,000 or whatever, over 400,000 is a lot of people. Where do they all go? Most clearly don't stick in this occupation that they just got licensed for."
"The reality is, if the job that you're offering sucks, is the solution really go find more suckers, or should you improve the job so people will come and stay?" Spencer added.
Ways to improve the job include no longer paying drivers primarily for miles driven, but rather for hours worked, according to Spencer. He noted that an expert at Wednesday's House hearing said 40% of the country's trucking capacity is left on the table every day, as truckers spend hours waiting to get unloaded or loaded rather than driving.
"The literal interpretation for a trucker is that 40% of the work I do, I'm not getting paid for, and no one should be happy about that," Spencer said. If the companies that employ drivers were required to pay them something for their time, then those companies would pressure shippers and receivers to do a better job of scheduling and getting trucks in and out, he added.
The typical annual wage for a trucker is about $48,000 a year, but the workweek can be 70 to 80 hours and out-of-pocket spending on the road for meals, showers at truck stops and other incidental expenses can total $10,000 a year, according to Spencer.
"Anybody that's willing to work 70 or 80 hours a week can make more money, spend less out of pocket, and sleep at home every night working in fast food," he told MarketWatch.
Another way to improve the situation for truckers would be to create more parking for them, Spencer said. OOIDA has criticized Washington's new $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law for not funding projects for truck parking, saying that's the "biggest safety need" for truckers.
The lobbying group for independent truckers also has criticized the infrastructure package's provision establishing an apprenticeship pilot program that opens the door to drivers aged 18 to 20. That program comes from compromises after OOIDA opposed fully opening up licensing to drivers aged 18 and up, down from the current age limit of 21.
"It's not like we need to tap into people at a younger age. What needs to happen is those companies that talk about having a driver shortage need to change the way they operate to make those jobs attractive to more people," Spencer said.
Even as Spencer talks about how truck driving can suck, he emphasizes that his Missouri-based group's members "have made this their life."
"They like the lifestyle, they like the challenge, and they like being on the move. They like seeing different scenery every day, and they put up with all of the other hassles," said OOIDA's president, who got his start in trucking nearly 50 years ago as a driver.
Trucking stocks are showing some big gains in the year to date, while the broad S&P 500 index is up 25%. J.B. Hunt Transport Services (JBHT) is up 43%, Old Dominion Freight Line (ODFL) has climbed 80%, and Knight-Swift Transportation (KNX) has advanced 38%. Landstar System (LSTR) is higher by 28%, and Schneider National (SNDR) has tacked on 23%.
Now read: Record 4.4 million workers quit in September as U.S. suffers worst labor shortage in decades
Plus:'I quit,' a record number of U.S. workers are telling their bosses
This report was first published on Nov. 18, 2021.
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