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New York Times: Driver shortage because of depressed wages

Long-haul tractor-trailers parked outside North Little Rock, Arkansas. While the trucking industry complains of too few qualified drivers, wages for those behind the wheel have fallen 6 percent, when accounting for inflation, over the past decade. (The Trucker file photo)

The Trucker Staff


NEW YORK — The nation’s shortage of professional truck drivers has gained the attention of what is considered the nation’s most prestigious newspaper — The New York Times.

In his column Economic Views, Neil Irwin, a senior economics correspondent for the newspaper, cites Swift Transportation’s recent announcement that it would give up profits to better compensate its drivers as a call for the industry to wake up and hike driver pay.

“The company’s performance is closely tied to the nation’s economy, which has been looking increasingly sunny lately,” Irwin wrote. “So it was surprising last month when Swift’s stock plummeted nearly 18 percent in a single day. The tumble came for an odd reason. It wasn’t because there was too little business — but rather, too much.”

Here’s what Swift executives said in the company’s second-quarter report:

“We were constrained by the challenging driver market. Our driver turnover and unseated truck count were higher than anticipated.”

The industry complains of shortages of truck drivers, but in real terms tractor-trailer drivers made less in 2013 than they did a decade earlier, Irwin points out.

In fact, Irwin said, while the trucking industry complains of too few qualified drivers, wages for those behind the wheel have fallen 6 percent, when accounting for inflation, over the past decade.

“Consider this,” Irwin wrote. “The American Trucking Associations has estimated that there was a shortage of 30,000 qualified drivers earlier this year, a number on track to rise to 200,000 over the next decade. Trucking companies are turning down business for want of workers.

“Yet the idea that there is a huge shortage of truck drivers flies in the face of a jobless rate of more than 6 percent, not to mention Economics 101. The most basic of economic theories would suggest that when supply isn’t enough to meet demand, it’s because the price — in this case, truckers’ wages — is too low. Raise wages, and an ample supply of workers should follow.

“But corporate America has become so parsimonious about paying workers outside the executive suite that meaningful wage increases may seem an unacceptable affront. In this environment, it may be easier to say ‘There is a shortage of skilled workers’ than ‘We aren’t paying our workers enough,’ even if, in economic terms, those come down to the same thing.”

Millions of able-bodied Americans need work, yet there aren’t enough middle-income jobs for them. That is especially the case for men without advanced educations, who have seen their wages depressed over the last few decades, Irwin believes.

“Trucking would seem to be an excellent option,” said Irwin, who points out that driving a truck is not an ideal job for everyone.

“It’s not an ideal job for everyone. There is no question that trucking is hard work, necessitating long hours and longer stretches away from family,” he wrote. “But that’s why it is well compensated, at least in comparison to other jobs not requiring college degrees.”

The ATA says the average pay for a long-haul truck driver is just shy of $50,000 a year. “Executives may bemoan higher pay for workers because it could cut profit margins. But after a generation in which the median American household has seen flat to declining inflation-adjusted income, wage increases are a welcome corrective,” Irwin concludes.  When workers begin to have more leverage in salary negotiations, it is a sign of an improving economy, not a liability that businesses should be complaining about.”

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