What is the real shortage?

By Todd Spencer, OOIDA Executive Vice President

Editor’s note: This is a letter OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer recently wrote to The Atlanta Journal Constitution in response to its recent story on the truck driver shortage.

Your subhead – “Stress, modest pay lead to high turnover in nation’s big rigs” – and your story on the supposed shortage of people willing to take truck driving jobs tells the tale. There certainly is no shortage of people. The shortage is in money, benefits and working conditions to sustain a quality, safe and professional pool of commercial drivers. The shortage is in management’s approach to its most important human capital in trucking – its drivers.

While deregulation of the industry in 1980 didn’t help, the transformation of truck driving as a career choice to a job of last resort is the result of economics within trucking.

Most drivers are paid piece-work – only for the miles driven and nothing for their time. This is fantastic for an employer. The piece-work incentive means drivers will always want more miles.

And as happens all too regularly, if drivers are held up by factors beyond their control like shipments not being ready to be loaded or unloaded, or traffic or weather, you have no employee costs. It is not uncommon for road drivers to lose 30 to 40 hours per week to inefficiencies of others in the supply chain. This is a tremendous personal loss to drivers and a cost to society at $5 billion annually, according to a recent Government Accountability Office finding.

Trucking companies that insist their drivers not be detained, or charge more when they are, quickly lose out to others that tolerate the waste of a driver’s time.

While $40,000 is a decent starting blue collar wage, that amount isn’t so decent for a 70- to 80-hour workweek, especially when you are away from home for weeks at a time. And that pay doesn’t increase with time or experience no matter how safe or competent a driver may be.

To almost all trucking companies, a driver’s value is based on how little it would take to replace that driver – maybe workers from other fields hard hit by the recession or maybe low wage workers from developing countries around the globe.

If you’re wondering whether this constant race to the bottom impacts safety, clearly it does. New and inexperienced drivers are far more likely to crash than experienced drivers, but obviously the accountants at larger trucking firms calculate they are money ahead by hiring and paying cheap.

When government agencies raise safety issues, these same companies push for more regulations, more mandates, more things designed to create the illusion of safety but not disturb the status quo.

Trucking suffers from overcapacity in vehicles and under-capacity of management in applying human resources. LL