The seemingly perpetual marketwide truck driver shortage is not real, nor is it marketwide. While specific fleets can and do have driver shortages — i.e., unseated trucks — the trucking market quickly corrects.
There also are periods of capacity shortages, but those get addressed very quickly by the market.
With no barriers to entry, almost anyone can create a trucking company. That is exactly what has happened over the past four years.
Operating authority for motor carriers of property issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration grew by 45% from July 2019 to August 2023, according to FreightWaves SONAR’s latest data, released in partnership with Carrier Details. Truckload demand as measured by the SONAR Outbound Tender Volume Index (OTVI) is only up about 11% during the same period.
The current difficult conditions in trucking are a result of too much capacity chasing too little freight.
Where does the perpetual driver shortage myth come from?
Generally speaking, the driver shortage myth stems from larger trucking companies that find it difficult to recruit drivers into their fleet operations. After all, fleets have to compete for truck drivers with other trucking companies. In addition, some licensed truck drivers go to work in other sectors of the economy, like construction and warehousing. But the fleets also have to compete against the growth of independent operators.
The American Trucking Associations propagates the narrative of the shortage. ATA members consist of midsize and large trucking fleets, which have increasingly become a smaller percentage of the trucking industry’s total capacity.
The ATA’s membership dues are indexed based on company size. For example, a large fleet with $4 billion in revenue will pay a much larger fee than a carrier with $50 million in revenue. Moreover, the ATA is a trade association and lobbying organization, which seeks to influence Congress when it considers legislation that impacts the trucking industry.
As the ATA encourages Congress to pass laws and appropriations that fund employee driver training and recruitment programs — while minimizing regulations that favor larger trucking fleets that employ drivers rather than independent owner-operators — it helps to paint a picture of a perpetual driver shortage.
After all, if Congress realized how fast capacity enters the market from independent operators when there is a capacity crunch, it would mitigate the need for employee driver recruitment and retention entitlement programs.
The FMCSA data tells the story about the growth of the small independent fleet
SONAR, FreightWaves’ proprietary data platform, collects data from a number of sources, including the FMCSA, the regulatory body that oversees the trucking industry. One of the FMCSA’s data sets tracks fleet registrations by the number of trucks that are assigned to a particular fleet.
SONAR breaks down the fleet sizes into cohorts to provide a more accurate reflection of the growth and fragmentation of trucking fleets.
In the SONAR chart below, the white line is the total number of tractors among fleets of one to six trucks; the purple line is the total number of tractors among fleets of seven to 11 trucks; the yellow line is the total number of tractors among fleets of 12 to 19 trucks; the blue line is the total number of tractors among fleets of 20 to 100 trucks; the orange line is the total number of tractors among fleets of 101 to 999 trucks; and the green line is the total number of tractors among fleets of 1,000 trucks and more.
Of the 2.9 million trucks in the market, 1.2 million are in fleets with more than 100 trucks — or just 41%. In 2010, fleets with more than 100 trucks comprised 54% of total trucking capacity.
Midsize and large fleets have problems recruiting new employee drivers, often due to lifestyle issues. Many drivers do not want to be away from home for days or weeks at a time, especially in a forced dispatch operation, which is typical of truck driver fleet operations.
For truck driving entrepreneurs who want to have the autonomy of their own operations, no such challenges exist. After all, if you want to dictate which loads make sense for you, based on destination, time in transit or even commodity, you can do so as an independent trucker with far more control than an employee fleet driver. Therefore, independent owner-operator entrepreneurs are constantly entering the market.
With the barriers to entry for new fleets becoming increasingly less burdensome, the number of smaller fleets in the industry will continue to grow. I broke down this phenomenon last week in an article on the growth of mom-and-pop trucking companies.
A downside to this trend? It is likely that boom and bust cycles in trucking become more pronounced and violent.
But for now, a capacity correction is underway and this is welcome news for everyone in the trucking industry.
All of the charts presented in this article are available for SONAR subscribers. Sign up for a demo today.
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