A widely accepted industry estimate of U. S. heavy and tractor-trailer truck driver jobs could be over-stated by as much as 40 percent, according to an upcoming report from the federal government’s largest employment data agency.
The number of long-haul truckers is somewhere between 1.87 million and 2.125 million, according to estimates in the Bureau of Labor Statistics report.
That count is well below the estimate of 3.5 million truckers from the industry’s largest lobbying group, the American Trucking Associations.
Trucking transportation company representatives and industry economists who reviewed the report supported the findings and the methodology used to reach them.
“Three and a half million over-the-road [drivers] is B.S. and always has been,” said Craig Fuller, founder and managing director of startup TransRisk and a long-time trucking executive. “Anybody who understands the industry knows the number doesn’t represent the true for-hire market.”
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 researchers argue that while driving constitutes a large portion of what truckers do, it’s not the only aspect of the job or skill required, and tasks such as freight handling, customer service and safety can’t easily be replaced by the mid-level autonomous technology that will appear first in the industry.
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. As of mid-January, it was being peer-reviewed for consideration for publication for consideration for publication in an industrial relations academic journal, according to Monaco, a long-time labor economist who was director of California State University Long Beach’s global logistics master’s program before joining the BLS.
ATA generates “great” data, but it’s not widely available to research or updated frequently, both reasons for additional research, Monaco told Trucks.com. “They do what they can,” she said.
Official Counts Erroneously Include Trucker Jobs Where Driving in Incidental
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.
That truckers have been over-counted is “no surprise to me whatsoever,” said Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs and communications for the Western States Trucking Association.
“Think about someone who operates a crane, or any type of vocational truck. They are not a truck driver even though they have a commercial driver’s license,” said Rajkovacz, who previously ran regulatory affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and before that owned a trucking company for 20 years.
“Monaco did a great job of using [BLS] data to get us a lot closer to an accurate number than we’ve seen in the past,” said Steve Viscelli, author of “The Big Rig”and a political sociologist and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The numbers she is suggesting are probably right on for owner-operators as a fraction of employee drivers,” said Michael H. Belzer, associate economics professor at Wayne State University and long-time chronicler of transportation industry labor issues. “Her numbers are probably as good as anybody’s out there.”
If fewer long-haul drivers work in the United States than the industry’s generally accepted estimate, it also calls into question the long-held stance that there aren’t enough drivers to go around, causing a widespread shortage. The shortage exists only because long-haul truckers who get paid by the mile don’t make enough to stay in jobs that put them on the road for weeks at a time and they quit the business, creating enormous turnover, economists and industry insiders who reviewed the paper said.
“It’s an economic problem” not a labor one, said Fuller, part of the family that co-founded and still runs U.S. Xpress Inc.
Tallying long-haul drivers is further complicated by lack of current data on the number of trucks operating in the country, Monaco said.
The U.S. Census and Bureau of Transportation Statistics ran the Federal Vehicle Inventory and Use Survey to count trucks and other vehicles for 40 years but dropped It in 2002 for budget reasons.
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.”
Trucking Automation Won’t Impact Jobs As Soon As Expected
The ATA declined to comment on the BLS report’s trucker jobs number.
However, the trade group agrees with the assessment that the pace of potential displacement of drivers due to technology will not be quick, if at all, ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello said.
“ATA has long said that there will be a place for truck drivers in the cabs of trucks for the foreseeable future and beyond, and we have yet to see compelling data or evidence to change that opinion,” Costello said.
Automated trucks that fall below the Level 4 autonomous vehicle technology threshold will still need an operator and won’t result in a loss of driver jobs, according to the BLS report.
The Society of Automotive Engineers uses a classification system of 5 levels of vehicle autonomy based on the amount of necessary driver intervention. Level 1, for example, requires a driver to be in control at all times but allows for automated acceleration and braking. Level 5 requires no human intervention.
The long-haul segment that truck automation is targeting, hauls of 201 miles or more, represents a quarter of heavy trucker jobs, so they’re the most likely to be affected, according to the report.
“We estimate there are roughly 419,000 truck drivers whose primary range of operation is 201 miles or more, 310,000 of whom drive tractor-trailers in the for-hire transportation and warehousing sector. These are the drivers who are likely to be most immediately affected by the implementation of level 4 automation,” according to the paper.
Viscelli did a similar analysis of the labor impact of self-driving trucks for an academic paper he expects will be published as soon as February. In it, he concluded 500,000 to 600,000 long-haul trucker jobs might be at risk. “As far as I’m concerned, we ended up in the same place,” he said of Monaco’s work.
“This paper is going to be an important contribution,” Viscelli said. “We need to start thinking about this in a more detailed way that looks at the segments that are potentially affected by automation.”