America's Truck Driver Shortage
There is a trucker shortage... and it's worse every year.
This is not news; this national driver shortage is no shock to businessmen or policymakers. Our driver shortage contributes to empty store shelves, idled assembly lines, retail price inflation, a reduced Gross Domestic Product, and the global supply chain crisis.
This is not just one industry’s problem; it’s everybody’s problem. What is odd, however, is that so many people believe the trucker shortage is caused entirely by not enough people choosing the profession of truck driving as a career. While that is certainly a part of it, it's not our real problem.
In fact, our truck driver shortage is caused primarily by a series of destructive government policies at every level.
Let’s begin by considering our own personal experience with transportation. When you move your kids into college, if you have two drivers and two minivans or SUVs, the family can move the student on the same day, in one trip. If you only have one driver, you may need to make two trips -- both on opening day in the fall and on move-out day in the spring, doubling the time it takes to do the job.
Or consider our daily commutes to and from work; a half hour drive at non-rush times might become a one-hour drive at rush hour, or a 90-minute commute if there’s both normal traffic congestion and road construction making it worse.
All these same issues apply to commercial transportation. Road construction, traffic congestion, and bad weather contribute to make commercial transportation take more time -- and therefore more man-hours -- than it ought. To the extent that these issues are unavoidable -- like traffic at rush hour -- that's life; there’s nothing to be done about it.
But, over the course of years, when we see that road construction lasts needlessly long because of government incompetence or graft, or that road rebuilds are done on the cheap, so they need to be done over and over again, across the decades, multiplying the time that roads are just torn-up obstacle courses, then we must acknowledge a truth: that one of the reasons for commutes and commercial transportation taking longer than necessary is government misbehavior.
The government is at least a part of the reason, a much bigger part than almost anyone realizes, not just for our individual wasted time spent on the roads, but for the additional needs for truck drivers, and therefore, for the cost and delays attributed to transportation in America today.
We are suffering from a global supply chain crisis, caused in large part by the failure of our seaports and railyards to keep up with increasing volumes. The container ship industry has responded steadily over the decades, building bigger and bigger ships, while most of our ports and railyards remain the same size they were 30 years ago.
Trucks could once drive up to a port, collect their containers, and be out in half an hour or so; today, because of utterly unsustainable volume in ports and railyards that have failed to expand as needed, they are overwhelmed. Trucks must now wait half a day or longer to make every container pickup and delivery. This inefficiency causes the system to need two, three, even four times as many drivers as it should, through no fault of their own.
The driver gets in the queue at the crack of dawn, and waits for his turn from these inefficient public-private partnerships. Our ports are managed by city and state port authorities; our railroads are federally regulated utilities, usually with no interest in their necessary expansion. This is a completely unforced error, caused predominantly by government.
Consider fuel usage. Now technically, this doesn’t necessarily hit the drivers, though it sure contributes to the cost of transportation. Truckers pass this on through fuel surcharges, though our currently skyrocketing fuel costs do hit them hard in terms of cash flow.
But it’s the issues that contribute to our fuel crisis that enhance the driver shortage. As soon as the current regime took office in January, 2021, they started shutting down pipelines and denying authorization for new ones. Without the smooth flow of oil through pipelines, tanker trucks are needed to move those millions of barrels across the country. We have thousands of truck drivers hauling oil who could be hauling other things, but for this completely nonsensical pipeline shutdown. So we can’t find drivers to haul regular freight, but we’re using them as a substitute while existing or planned pipelines go unused or unbuilt. An unforced error, entirely planned and executed by the federal government.
Next: the COVID-19 “pandemic,” when federal, state, and even county and city governments started imagining that masks and six-foot “social distancing” rules would stop a virus, and put such things into law, in everything from statutes and local ordinances to executive orders?
Well, factories, distribution centers, retail stores and truck crossdocks were forced to adopt these measures, doubling or tripling the time it takes to prepare goods for shipment, and to handle each delivery and pickup.
What’s the result? Every time you see a line of trucks down the block or around the corner, waiting for the chance to have one person do the work of three because three could no longer work together inside that eight-foot-wide truck, that’s yet another contribution to the driver shortage. Who dreamed up these six-foot social distancing rules? This unforced error too is entirely the product of government.
Consider states like California that have declared war on certain kinds of trucking. They have banned owner-operators from some kinds of moves, banned some kinds and ages of trucks, banned some kinds of fuel from still others. In California, thousands of perfectly good drivers and rigs have had to look out of state for business, because their own state forbids them from working. Tens of thousands of containers stack up, clogging Los Angeles and Long Beach, waiting to be picked up, while thousands of competent drives with suitable rigs are banned from the port.
And these are just the reasons we need so many more drivers than we should. We could also look at issues like the double-hit of the federal payroll tax that attacks owner-operators so hard. We could consider the complexities of federal Hours of Service (HoS) regulations that make every log sheet and fleet schedule a math project. We could review the federal fuel efficiency standards that have left common sense behind, chasing after ever-more-expensive, ever-less-worthwhile gains in efficiency, pricing rigs beyond the reach of entrepreneurial individuals, all contributing to the end result: making truck driving less appealing to the next generation of workers.
We do need more truck drivers. Transportation is at the heart of everything in our economy, from food prices to energy, from necessities to the little luxuries that make for a modern, first-world standard of living. It’s government actions and government choices that hamstring the industry, drive up costs and drive down efficiency.
It's government that makes us need so many more drivers than we should, and dissuades the young from going into it as a career.
We can hardly be blamed if we are reminded of the late President Reagan’s dictum: The nine scariest words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based international transportation professional. A onetime Milwaukee County Republican Party chairman, he has been writing a regular column for Illinois Review since 2009. His book on vote fraud (The Tales of Little Pavel) and his brand-new political satires on the current administration (Evening Soup with Basement Joe, Volumes I and II) are available on Amazon.