The argument over whether America is facing a 'truck driver shortage' has embroiled the trucking industry for years. We asked 3 CEOs and 2 economists to settle the debate.

Bob Costello, chief economist and senior vice president at the American Trucking Associations

BOB COSTELLO ATA PHOTO 2019.JPG Courtesy of the American Trucking Associations

Labor economists point to the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, when trucking became a deregulated industry, as the harbinger for trucking’s decline as a high-wage blue-collar job.  In 1977, the mean earnings of a unionized truck driver stood at £98,900 in 2020 dollars. Around 80% of drivers were unionized at this time. Today, the typical truck driver is not unionized, and their income hovers around £43,680

Costello, an economist who has worked at the ATA since 1997, said deregulation radically changed how the truckload industry functions – and many of the trucking giants of the 1970s and ’80s don’t exist today. Deregulation also meant, given that truckers move 71% of the nation’s goods, that everything consumers buy has become cheaper.  “That’s when this industry became a low-margin industry,” Costello told Business Insider. “So while we have all benefited, it has made a more challenging environment for truckload carriers in particular.”

Still, Costello rejects the notion that raising pay for truck drivers would lickety-split fix the driver shortage. He said there are multiple reasons that trucking has a driver shortage — and, notably, that pay has trended upwards for truck drivers in recent years.  “If it was just about let’s get them all to £100,000 and this would be easy peasy over, I think that’s almost be easier to solve than what’s going on,” Costello said. “I don’t want to suggest that that even can happen today under the constraints within the industry, but we’re moving in a direction where the pay continues to go up.”

One reason Costello says that his experience is in touch with trucking executives internationally; companies in Western Europe, Canada, and some Asian countries are also facing a shortage. That’s especially notable in countries like Germany, where companies can easily hire lower-wage workers from EU countries like Poland and Romania. “It tells you that this is more than pay is the natural market reaction,” Costello told Business Insider.

Few women or young people are in truck driving

Just as significantly as pay, Costello said truck driving is slammed by a demographic problem. The average age of a truck driver is around the late 40s to early 50s. 

One key way to fix that is by allowing those aged 18 to 20 to become an interstate truck driver, for which the ATA is pushing in Washington. Right now, a truck driver younger than 21 can only drive within a single state, which means most high school graduates headed for a vocational path are more likely to look into construction, retail, or warehousing.  “By no means are we saying enough 18, 19 and 20 year olds are going to come to us and end the driver shortage,” Costello said. “But what we want to do is to start to break that cycle of getting these drivers when they’re in their 30’s, getting them at a younger age.”

Only 6% of truck drivers are women, too. And they’re more than half of the workforce. Welcoming more women into trucking would certainly ease the shortage. 

The lifestyle complications are also notable. “In most circumstances, especially when you are new to the trucking industry, in a best case scenario, you are going to go out for five nights before you get home,” Costello said. “And in many cases, it’s more than that.” Is there a truck driver shortage?: Yes. The US will be short 100,000 drivers in five years, and 160,000 drivers by 2028. Costello’s solution: Get more women and young people in the trucking industry — the latter through legislative change.

Ensure that trucking salaries stay on the up-and-up.