U.S. Media Celebrates Letting 18 Year Olds Drive Semi-Trucks, Parrots Industry Talking Points about Mythical “Labor Shortage”
In many areas, truck driver wages are down 50% since the 1980s. The solution? Don’t pay drivers more, let teenagers in on the action.
Another week, another torrent of “labor shortage” articles that accept the core premises of industry lobbyists without question.
Not a day goes by that the average media consumer doesn’t see an article or news report lamenting the so-called “labor shortage” affecting “supply chains” (see: the reader’s ability to have fully stocked shelves) without any mention that safety standards, unionization, benefits, and wages are down for the relevant industry. We are simply told an abstract “labor shortage” is afoot, causing supply chain problems, holding back the U.S. and global economy, and harming you, the media consumer. And the solution is to simply find new, increasingly precarious labor pools.
This was the case yesterday when dozens of outlets published stories boosting, without an ounce of skepticism, a new pilot program backed by the Biden White House to let teenagers drive semi-trucks. “With the trucking industry facing a shortage of qualified drivers, the U.S. government is setting up an apprenticeship program for young truckers. The new program will allow people as young as 18 to drive big interstate semi-trucks,” CNN writes. “Facing a Shortage of Truck Drivers, Pilot Program Turns to Teenagers,” a New York Times headline blares. “Teens could soon become truck drivers with new program to help during supply chain crisis,” CBS news reprints.
Left unmentioned in all these articles, and dozens more, is that truck driver wages have gone down in many cities by as much as 50%. As Rachel Premack at Business Insider documented in 2018 when debunking the “truck driver shortage” trope, the lack of truck drivers is not due to a small labor pool, or a vague unwillingness to work, or a moral failing on the part of potential applicants sitting around cashing welfare checks. It’s due to a gutting of worker protections, reduced morale, and, most importantly of all, a radical reduction of wages.
As Premack wrote:
In 1977, the mean earnings of a unionized truck driver stood at $96,552 in 2018 dollars. At least 80% of drivers were unionized at this time…In 1974, Belzer wrote that there were 2,019,300 truckers in Teamsters [unionized truck drivers]. Now, there are 75,000.
Cut to 2022. Wages are still down 30% to 50% in key markets, and the job is as dangerous and taxing as ever. Naturally, the pool of people wanting the job would reduce accordingly. Thus, when demand for truckers increases, there’s a “labor shortage.” But, as Peter Greene noted in Forbes when debunking a related myth of “teacher shortages” in 2019, it’s not a lack of willing workers: It’s a severe lack of incentives—wages, unions, benefits—needed to entice workers to take on the difficult work:
You can’t solve a problem starting with the wrong diagnosis. If I can’t buy a Porsche for $1.98, that doesn’t mean there’s an automobile shortage. If I can’t get a fine dining meal for a buck, that doesn’t mean there’s a food shortage. And if appropriately skilled humans don’t want to work for me under the conditions I’ve set, that doesn’t mean there’s a human shortage.
Dozens of articles announced the plan without questioning its core premise that there simply aren't enough people willing to work. But there are enough people willing to work at the right price—the reason Trucking Industry groups like American Trucking Associations (ATA) lobbied the Biden White house and Congress to create this pilot program is so that they could compensate for this “shortage” not with higher wages and better working conditions, but by expanding the labor pool with more desperate and precarious labor cohort of 18 to 20 year olds.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a pro-safety group funded by the insurance industry, a “study of U.S. truck drivers found those younger than 19 had a rate of fatal crashes per mile traveled 339% higher than those of drivers of all ages, and drivers ages 19-20 had a crash rate 516% higher than those of all ages.” An extremely risky expansion of the labor pool industry bosses have been pushing for years—long before COVID or any recent “supply crisis”—is being rammed through without any public debate, boosted by a media unwilling or unable to question whether or not this “pilot” program could easily be avoided by simply providing the older, safer, and willing drivers that do exist higher wages and better working conditions. But no, this discussion is simply omitted entirely from these reports, sans an occasional token comment of dissent from a safety expert on paragraph 19.
And, to the extent there is any skepticism, it’s entirely divorced from any analysis of the broader industry trends harming workers. Shouldn’t the reader be aware that a reduction of job security and wages is a major driver here, not some abstract “shortage” without any cause? Isn’t this relevant when assessing the political context of this meaningful reduction of safety standards? Is any “economics” or “business” reporter going to bother, in any of the dozens of “labor shortage” articles, to interrogate—much less, center—the reduction of unionization, safety standards, and pay as, perhaps, a key driver of so-called “labor crisis” we are allegedly in the middle of? This is unlikely, but it would be nice if reporters reprinting trucking industry and White House press releases about this new “pilot program” “designed to help” the “supply crisis” bothered to question the institutional factors causing a lack of workers in the first place.