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Maybe We Don't Need Teenage Truck Drivers After All

Arthur Delaney
A new Bureau of Labor Statistics report contradicts more than a decade of warnings from the American Trucking Associations that there is a shortage of drivers. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Lobbyists for the freight industry have complained for years that there is a shortage of truck drivers and that Congress should lower the legal age for commercial driving to help fill it.

But a journal article published by President Donald Trump’s Department of Labor said that, actually, there is no shortage.

In fact, not only are drivers not speeding away from the industry, but they also may be more loyal to their occupation than some other blue-collar workers are to theirs, according to a new report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“This finding suggests that the market for truck drivers works about as well as that for other blue-collar occupations,” wrote Stephen V. Burks and Kristen Monaco in an article for the Monthly Labor Review, a journal of research and analysis published by the BLS (published articles do not necessarily reflect the view of BLS leaders). The paper acknowledges, however, that the trucking labor market is tight, meaning recruitment is not necessarily easy.

But if trucking carriers want more workers, all they have to do is offer higher wages and “the potential for any long-term shortages will be ameliorated,” wrote Burks, a professor at the University of Minnesota at Morris, and Monaco, an associate commissioner at the BLS Office of Compensation and Working Conditions.

The BLS report contradicts more than a decade of warnings from the American Trucking Associations, the biggest trade group for the industry.

ATA President Chris Spear told a congressional committee in February that the industry “is facing a severe labor shortage that threatens to increase the cost of moving freight and reduce supply chain efficiencies.”

He urged Congress to make it easier for people to become truckers ― especially people under 21, who are currently not allowed to drive commercial vehicles across state lines. If federal lawmakers ever get around to passing an infrastructure bill, it could be a vehicle for lowering the age limit.

Most states allow 18-year-olds to get commercial driver’s licenses, but if they want to drive interstate, federal law has long required they be at least 21 ― a safety measure that Spear said is antiquated.

“Modern-day vehicle safety technologies have advanced by several orders of magnitude since the current minimum age requirement was promulgated decades ago,” he said.

While there may not be a severe shortage of commercial drivers, expanding the pool of workers would lower costs for businesses. More workers would have to compete against one another for the same jobs, so more would be willing to accept lower wages to win those jobs.

With younger drivers, safety could be a major tradeoff. The number of fatal crashes per mile for passenger vehicle drivers age 16 to 19 is nearly three times the number for drivers 20 or older, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. One simple reason is that teenagers are less experienced. Also, they are less able to perceive risks and make worse decisions.

Just because they’re worse at driving cars doesn’t mean they would be hell on 18 wheels (though it certainly doesn’t not mean that either). Trucks are half as likely as passenger vehicles to be involved in property-damaging crashes, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Truck drivers may drive more safely because getting a commercial license can involve a check of your driving record, a physical exam and passing a road test ― and violating the rules of the road can cost you your job.

“One of the reasons is that most commercial vehicle drivers are professional drivers. This is their livelihood,” said Chris Turner of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of public safety and transportation officials.

The ATA is pushing a bipartisan bill that would lower the age restriction to 18 but would require drivers under 21 to enroll in an apprenticeship program that would add months of training to the normal process for obtaining a commercial driver’s license. They would be allowed to drive only trucks with forward-facing video cameras and active-braking collision-prevention software, which not all trucks have.

Turner said his organization is open to lowering the age limit. He added that it would be ideal if policymakers had some data on whether it would be less safe for younger drivers to haul freight across state lines. Right now, there isn’t any.

“We’d like to gather some data to make sure we … make good decisions based on verifiable data that can be reproduced,” he said.

While there may not be a severe shortage of commercial drivers, expanding the pool of workers would lower costs for businesses.

Congress passed a bill in 2015 that would set up a pilot program to compare the safety of interstate commercial driving by teenagers and people in their early 20s. The pilot has not yet started. 

The ATA doesn’t want to wait around. And as for the BLS report, the association said the authors betrayed “some basic misunderstandings about the trucking industry.” A key objection is that the shortage of drivers is confined to a subset of heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers who drive farthest, and that BLS data does not focus on them specifically enough.

The researchers acknowledged their data did not pinpoint the long-haul subset, however, and they said they did not believe the limitation confounded their results. They looked at wage and employment numbers for heavy truckers compared with those for other blue-collar workers with similar levels of education and found that over time, employment and wages have increased steadily relative to those for other industries.

“This picture is consistent with a labor market in which overall supply is responding to growing overall demand,” Burks and Monaco wrote. Another part of their analysis found that truckers were less likely to switch occupations than other blue-collar workers.

Dean Baker, a labor expert with the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research, said the report represented the gold standard in labor market analysis. If companies need to attract more workers, doing so may hurt their profits, but it’s not an indication that the labor market is broken.

“There will inevitably be complaints from some businesses that they can’t afford to pay more,” Baker said. He added that if the push for a lower commercial driving age is based entirely on the idea of a trucker shortage, “the BLS study should torpedo that.”

Clarification: This article has been updated to include a description of the BLS Monthly Labor Review that clarifies it does not necessarily represent official BLS positions.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.
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