Driver shortage likely to return as economy recovers, ATA economist says

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 1,558 views 

The perennial driver shortage looks to have been quelled temporarily as the trucking industry continues to reduce staff amidst the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

Meanwhile, the health crisis has yet to impact the availability of technicians for carriers and service providers, a survey shows.

In May, the seasonally adjusted number of truck transportation employees fell by 1,200 to 1.43 million, from April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of employees declined 6.6%, or by 100,800 jobs, in May, from 1.53 million in the same month in 2019.

“The often discussed driver shortage is over — at least for the time being — as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the deepening U.S. recession and a falloff in the amount of freight being hauled by many sectors of trucking,” according to a recent Transport Topics article. The U.S. driver shortage previously was about 60,000 drivers, according to the trade group American Trucking Associations (ATA).

Demand has fallen in some segments of the trucking industry, such as tanker and flatbed operations, while carriers hauling groceries and medical supplies have seen a rise. The ATA previously projected the driver shortage would rise to more than 160,000 drivers by 2028. In October, the driver shortage was ranked the top issue for the trucking industry for the third consecutive year, according to the American Transportation Research Institute.

ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello expects the market for drivers will tighten later this year as the economy recovers.

“When the economy gets back, I fully expect the driver shortage to come back, maybe even worse than before,” Costello said. “We don’t know how many people will take the opportunity for people to leave the industry.”

In March, Tontitown-based carrier P.A.M. Transportation Services Inc. temporarily laid off more than 50 employees as a result of the automotive plant closures in Michigan in the wake of the pandemic. Tyler Majors, director of human resources, previously said the company would bring them back as soon as possible.

A recent survey by the ATA’s Technology & Maintenance Council shows the limited impact COVID-19 has had on technicians. One exception has been the availability of shop support supplies such as personal protective equipment, including masks, gloves and disinfectants. At the start of the crisis, the availability of parts was a challenge, but with truck manufacturers closed, the parts that were to be delivered to them were redirected to the replacement market, according to a recent Transport Topics article.

In May, orders of class 8 trucks, the largest truck size, rose 56%, from April, but was down 38% from the same month in 2019, according to ACT Research. Kenny Vieth, president and senior analyst for ACT Research, said the slow reopening of the economy in May “was not an exercise building customer confidence. Restarting the manufacturing sector from a full stop was only partly successful, as Mexico’s lockdowns remained in effect well after the U.S. began to reopen, resulting in challenging supply-chain dynamics and fragmented supplier sourcing.”

Robert Braswell, executive director for the Technology & Maintenance Council, noted respondents in the survey said conditions in April were not as bad as they had expected in March. Throughout the pandemic, the number of service requests has not declined, according to Transport Topics. However, the type of freight a carrier hauls affects maintenance operations.

“Fuel hauling business, your trucks aren’t very busy,” Braswell said. In the grocery business, you’re really, really busy. If you’re hauling toilet paper, you are really, really, really busy. If you’re hauling clothing for Macy’s or some of the other clothing stores, you’re shut down.”