The federal government detailed a pilot program last week that will allow around 3,000 18-t0 20-year-olds to drive big rigs across state lines. The program was a requirement in the massive infrastructure bill passed Nov. 15, 2021, and will allow teens without any visual impairments or previous tickets to pilot the massive 80,000-pound trucks all on their own after a probationary period.
The American Trucking Associations is a lobbying group that has been pushing for this program, as well as the American trucker shortage narrative for, well, at least since I started my first writing gig at AOL Autos. The group cited the idea for this program for years as a way to alleviate a looming breakdown of our national shipping network.
Then the pandemic happened, and the whole world’s global logistical systems didn’t break down per se, but it was definitely rattled. Now the Association is claiming a shortage of 80,000 drivers. Holy shit! How are we still a functioning society? It seems this figure, along with global shipping hiccups due to the pandemic, were enough to scare Congress into approving a program that common sense would tell you is incredibly dangerous with very little societal benefit.
Not telling you anything you don’t know here, but we live under capitalism. Supply and demand are the law of the land. The only thing that creates a worker shortage is when an employer refuses to pay what workers will accept to do the job. Indeed, truckers saw stagnant wages for years, according to Barrons, and the rise in pay in recent years has not kept up with inflation or even with other industries in the U.S.
It’s not just trucking, of course. You may have noticed a “lack of workers” for lower paid, high stress jobs was a theme in 2021 and seems ready to come back for 2022: Labor Boogaloo. Soaring inflation, stagnant salaries and unacceptable working conditions means more and more people are encouraging employers to take their jobs and shove them.
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I’m not the only one who thinks this program is less about solving a trucker shortage and more about hiring an inexperienced and cheap workforce. From Barrons.com:
The unemployment rate for workers in “transportation and material moving occupations” has dropped considerably since the worst of the financial crisis, but it remains above the overall jobless rate. Moreover, the gap between the overall unemployment rate and the unemployment rate for workers in transportation has been broadly stable over the past 20 years after accounting for seasonal variation.
A valuable new study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that there is not, and has never been, a serious shortage of people willing to work as truck drivers. In fact, they find that “the market for truck drivers works about as well as that for other blue-collar occupations.”
And the Guardian:
This claim has been repeated consistently over the years and has recently been cited by industry groups in favor of a bill in Congress to lower the commercial driver’s license age requirement from 21 to 18. But truck drivers are quick to highlight the low pay, poor treatment and tough working conditions they endure throughout the industry as prevailing issues for employers who claim to have trouble finding and retaining enough drivers.
“The industry has recycled this narrative about every three months for over 20 years. There is no truck driver shortage,” said Desiree Wood, the president of Real Women in Trucking. “It is indeed a pay shortage and work conditions issue.”
And this expert, who told Congress just last month that simply improving logistics to get every driver on the road just 18 minutes longer a day would be the equivalent of hiring 80,000 drivers. From Insider:
David Correll, a research scientist at MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics, found that truckers only spend about 6.5 hours driving per day, even though federal safety regulations let them drive for 11 hours a day.
He testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last month that 40% of US trucking capacity is underutilized daily. Correll’s study found that adding just 18 minutes of driving time to every existing truck driver’s day would have the same effect as hiring 80,000 more drivers. At the time, ATA said the report failed to address the nuances of the industry.
Improving those logistics would also make life for the drivers much much better. Trucking is an incredibly tough job. There’s a lot of standing around waiting at ports that have no facilities open to drivers. Odd, long hours away from home means there’s no time for a family or even a normal life (one U.S. trucker told the Guardian it took three years for him to make an optometrist appointment. But it’s not like truckers need eyes to see right?), plus poor working conditions and stagnant wages are all real problems in the trucking industry. Turnover in the trucking industry since 1995 has been a staggering 90 percent.
The answer according to the ATA? Teenagers. Instead of fighting to improve conditions for the workers they have, trucking companies are pushing to hire teenagers to drive long-haul routes. Of course, you can pay a brand new teenager straight out of CDL certification much less than an experienced road warrior. They’re less likely to complain about physical aliments associated with driving, as their bodies are limber and haven’t been wrecked by a decade behind the wheel.
There is a slight drawback, however. The leading cause of death for teens? Car accidents. The U.S. Department of Transportation found that, while teens are driving less, they are crashing at incredible rates. The fatal crash rate per mile driven for 16 to 19 year olds is nearly three times the rate for drivers ages 20 and over, according to the most recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
What is it going to look like when those teens are driving some of the largest vehicles on the road on five hours of sleep and long hours of monotonous driving? Fully grown adult brains find the task mentally exhausting. Really it’s not a question of if, but when something terrible happens with a teen behind the wheel of a semi truck.
But this is the sort of thing industries create lobbying groups for — saving large companies money over everything else. The ATA isn’t the only organization pushing for more truckers out there. Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association says there is a need for more truckers, but the problem isn’t bringing new drivers into the industry, it’s keeping the tried-and-true ones they already have. From MarketWatch:
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.
“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.
This seems like a tragedy in the making, but in a country where we accept death as a part of doing business, greed will continue to find new and exciting ways to cause mayhem in the name of profits.