The Dispute Over the Driver Shortage is the Wrong Issue to Focus On

The argument of whether or not the driver shortage exists continues on.

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released a report recently stating that there isn’t really a shortage of drivers, rather the industry’s coverage of the issue is blown way out of proportion. The American Trucking Association (ATA) produced a rebuttal shortly afterwards, arguing that the BLS report was incomplete and incorrect and that there is, in fact, a driver shortage.

So which is it?

As it turns out, they’re both right. Though, they’re focusing on the wrong problem.

The ATA is absolutely right that fleets regularly report having difficultly hiring for all the positions they have open. Whenever I attend industry events, such as the Mid-America Trucking Show, I always see fleets pull out all the stops to promote their company to attract drivers.

However, sometimes you need a third party that can report from the outside, looking in. From BLS’s standpoint, it doesn’t appear there’s a driver shortage. A basic truth of supply-and-demand is that when there’s a shortage, prices go up and some people have to go without. That’s not happening here – the freight is still being delivered and shelves aren’t sitting empty. If a shipper wants to get freight delivered, they can. That’s not to say that there are never disruptions, just that those tend to be outliers right now. The disruptions aren’t significant enough that they’re being felt in the wider economy. It’s entirely possible that those disruptions will reach the point where they are having a larger impact, but at the moment they’re not.

The ATA points out that while there are substantial numbers of drivers applying for jobs, most of them aren’t sufficiently qualified. That may be true, but it’s also true for any job in any industry. The number of high-quality workers in any occupation is always a small percentage of the total labor pool. That alone doesn’t mean there’s a shortage.

So, if trucking isn’t really facing a driver shortage, then what’s going on? Why is it so hard to find good drivers? If you take a look at the fleets that are struggling to hire 50, 100, 200 or more drivers per year, you’ll often find they don’t have those hiring targets because they’re growing their fleet, but because they’re trying fill the open jobs of drivers that have left the company.

Put another way, the trucking industry doesn’t have a labor problem; it has a retention problem.

That statement is about as groundbreaking as saying “the sky is blue” or “winter sucks,” but there are a couple of reasons why it’s important to recognize what the real problem is.

For one, the industry will never solve a labor shortage without fixing the retention issue. The old metaphor of trying to fill a bucket with a hole in the bottom holds true here. If you aren’t actively trying to fix the root problem (retaining drivers) you’ll continue the never-ending cycle of searching for replacement drivers. Good luck growing your fleet.

But, there doesn’t have to be a retention problem. It amazes me how many people in the industry just accept high turnover as a fact of life, dismissing the idea that it can be changed. I regularly talk to people who cite ATA’s large fleet turnover numbers (generally in the vicinity of 100%) as if it’s just a regular cost of doing business.

But, that’s a false assumption, and accepting it as reality traps people in a mindset that creates excess costs and unnecessary business disruption. It also distracts them from solving the real problem by focusing their attention in the wrong place.

In the past, the Best Fleets to Drive For program showed us fleets large and small that didn’t have turnover issues. The top fleets definitely had to sift through applicants to find the best people, but when you only have 20 percent or 30 percent annual turnover, it’s a much more manageable task. Several fleets only had a few openings per year and some even had a waiting list of interested applicants, so they didn’t advertise or do any active recruiting.

This year, it’s the same. The Top 20 in the program has fleets with 30 drivers all the way up to over 10,000, and put together, the average annual turnover was just over 33 percent. It’s important to note that several of these fleets keep drivers out for multiple weeks at a time, and a few are flatbed carriers as well. That’s important because the conventional wisdom is that long haul OTR fleets have higher than average turnover, and flatbed fleets have it even worse.

That’s not a rule, though. Whether it’s a huge public company with lots of layers and bureaucracy, a small fleet with limited options and career choices, an OTR carrier where drivers are gone for 3-4 weeks at a time, a heavy haul flatbed carrier requiring drivers to chain and tarp in the middle of winter, or a fleet built around owner-operators, driver turnover is a solvable problem and there are fleets who have figured it out.

So what’s the magic recipe? We’ve noticed that across the board, tops fleets have made a significant effort in understanding what makes drivers successful in their company, hiring drivers that fit that criteria, onboarding them properly, then making them feel like an important part of the team so they stay engaged and don’t start looking around. Money alone is not the answer.

It may sound like a lot of work, but it’s worth the effort. If every fleet was as disciplined as these Top 20 fleets, and the industry got its average turnover down to 40 percent, or even 50 percent, I suspect we’d hear a lot less talk about a driver shortage.

It’s easy to accept driver turnover as “part of the business,” but the fleets that challenge those assumptions are the ones that end up having more success in the long-term.