How Many Truck Drivers Are There?

I am so confused.

A few weeks ago, I revisited the age-old driver shortage question (see Truck Driver Shortage: Getting Better, Worse, or No Problem at All?). As the title of my post suggests, the answer to the question depends on who you ask, when you ask it, and what data you use.

Speaking of data, let’s start with a basic question: How many truck drivers are there in the United States?

Simple question, but it turns out that answering it is not so simple.

Number of Truck Drivers: The ATA vs. Bureau of Labor Statistics

The American Trucking Association says there are 3.5 million truck drivers in the country (as of 2015), but a new report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the number of long-haul truck drivers somewhere between 1.87 million and 2.125 million. That’s at least a 40 percent difference!

Earlier this month on, Michelle Rafter reported on this difference. Here are some excerpts from her article:

BLS researchers parsed agency data on U.S. occupation classifications as well as statistics from other government databases to calculate trucker employment. They conducted the research to support the paper’s main theory, that autonomous vehicle technology could displace approximately a quarter of all long-haul truck drivers, which is far fewer than has been speculated.

The report, “Truck Driving Jobs: Are They Headed for Rapid Elimination?” from researchers Maury Gittleman and Kristen Monaco, is based on their May 2017 presentation at a conference sponsored by the Industry Studies Association…Monaco’s research found that driver counts are inflated because federal occupational classifications include administrative and other jobs at trucking carriers that don’t involve driving trucks.

Federal statistics also are off because they include occupations in which driving a truck is incidental to a job’s main function, such as sales workers who drive a truck or “light truck or delivery service drivers” who deliver or pick up merchandise, according to the paper.

Those assumptions led the BLS researchers to conclude that approximately 1.7 million heavy and tractor-trailer truckers are employed by U.S. carriers. They also posited that an additional 10 percent to 25 percent of that number work as self-employed or contractor drivers, or 170,000 to 425,000.

So, it turns out that the economy has been been supported (and been growing) with far fewer truck drivers than previously thought, which adds another wrinkle to the whole driver shortage question.

Are We Running Out of Truck Drivers?

And just as I’m trying to make sense of all this, I came across this headline a few days ago from Bloomberg: The U.S. Is Running Out of Truckers.

“Industry leaders have been complaining about a truck driver shortage for a while, but unlike other industries that have been complaining about worker shortages, we have real evidence both in employment numbers and in business activity that the shortage is starting to have an impact on the economy,” writes Conor Sen, the article’s author. He points to companies such as Hershey’s, Clorox, and Sysco that have all warned about rising transportation costs in their earnings calls. This coincides with a Wall Street Journal article from earlier this month (Rising Freight Costs Are Weighing on Companies’ Profits) that provided similar examples, including “cardboard maker Packaging Corp. of America [that] said higher shipping costs cut into its adjusted profit by 4 cents a share in the fourth quarter.”

Here’s a Varsity Math question for you: The ATA projected a 50,000 driver shortage by the end of 2017, but that’s off their estimate that there are 3.5 million truck drivers overall. If there are actually 2.125 million (or fewer) truck drivers in the industry, then what is the actual driver shortage?

Bonus Question: What is the driver shortage when you factor in the number of trucks operating in the country, which is X — that is, an unknown quantity?

(As reported by Rafter, “The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration maintains a truck registry through the Motor Carrier Management Information System. ‘But the database is kind of a mess because establishments go out of business’ and don’t remove their listings, Monaco said. ‘There’s a big over count.’”)

The Most Important Question

The bottom line is that these questions don’t really matter. The trucking market is what it is: a cyclical one.

The important question, whether you’re a shipper or a carrier, is how do you work more effectively together to smooth out the peaks and valleys in prices and demand?

In other words, how do you create a long-term, win-win relationship?

I’ve addressed that question in previous posts and episodes (see links below), but it all boils down to this, which a logistics executive said in a presentation on Vested many years ago:

“Have the courage to manage for the long term against the pressures we face today for instant results.”

Having such courage, however, requires trust — and trust is something that, unfortunately, is in short supply in many business relationships, including between shippers and carriers.

Talking Logistics episodes and posts related to transportation procurement and shipper-carrier relationships:

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