- During the pandemic, trucking companies claimed there was a shortage of drivers.
- But Jason Miller, a professor, says drivers don’t want to drive for mega haulers anymore.
- They have instead moved to smaller carriers and short-haul routes, he said.
Photos of empty shelves have littered social media over the past year. And these, in part, have been blamed on the lack of truck drivers.
Reports of a shortage of truckers aren’t new, but they’ve been picked up more widely amid the very tangible supply chain disruption during the pandemic.
Some companies have raised wages and offered massive signing bonuses to new truck drivers, saying no one wants to work for them anymore. The American Trucking Association’s chief economist said in October that the shortage of truckers in the United States had reached “an all-time high.”
But some truckers, as well as industry experts, dispute that there is a shortage. Jason Miller, an associate professor of supply chain management at Michigan State University, told Insider there’s no shortage of truckers, just a change in where they work.
They don’t want to drive for mega-carriers anymore, he said.
“Rather than there’s a shortage, we’ve seen what economists would call driver reallocation,” Miller said. In January 2022, about 1.53 million Americans worked in the trucking industry, up 0.9% from two years earlier, according to BLS data compiled by Miller and viewed by Insider.
Miller said many drivers became owner-operators or started working for smaller carriers. He shared BLS data with Insider, which shows the average size of U.S. trucking establishments fell from 10.6 employees at the end of 2019 to 9.4 employees in the third quarter of 2021.
Some truckers say they are treated poorly by mega carriers who want to “pay drivers like peanuts” and don’t cover the hours they may spend waiting at shippers and receivers. “You’re not a name, you’re a number,” said Gary Otterson, a 20-year trucking veteran from Alabama. “They want to reduce the pilot to a consumable resource.”
Along with ditching mega-carriers, Miller said a “substantial” number of drivers have also shifted to short-haul freight, citing BLS data. This is partly due to a shift in demand from manufacturing-related deliveries to consumer-oriented freight, he said.
But the shift to short-haul freight also stems from drivers wanting to avoid COVID-19 and the intensity of life on the road. For truck drivers, trucking is as much a way of life as it is a profession: they have to eat at truck stops, sleep in their vehicles and spend weeks out at a time.
“I have a three-year-old daughter who I watched growing up over video chat,” Joe Kattermann, CDL driver trainer at Werner Enterprises, told Insider. “I spend more time video chatting with my family than with them.”
Spot rates have soared during the pandemic
A combination of drivers moving to both smaller carriers and short-haul routes “helped create this very tight capacity” and drove U.S. spot rates to “absolutely unprecedented levels.” “said Miller.
“People seem to think trucking capacity is very flexible, but it’s really not because so many carriers are regionalized,” he said. “All of a sudden you have a situation where even though the total number of workers is the same, the lanes the drivers want to transport on are going to be different.”
Some drivers quit their jobs at larger carriers to buy their own truck and become an independent owner-operator to take advantage of high cash prices, Miller said.
Miller said rising freight prices had a “minimal” impact on soaring inflation in the United States. In fact, a company’s trucking expenses generally only represent between 3% and 6% of its revenues.
“People are seeing record sea freight prices, record air freight prices, record trucking prices, and they want to blame that for the inflationary effects that we’re seeing, and that’s just not happening. happening,” Miller said. He added that changes in commodity prices were largely responsible for the current inflation.