Trucking, down to Andhra Pradesh

Wanted: Indian big-rig drivers

Published July 19, 2006 10:52PM (EDT)

What do the software and long-haul trucking industries in the United States have in common? They both claim a drastic shortage of workers and they are both looking to India to fill the gap.

A bulletin from Rob Sanchez's Job Destruction Newsletter on Monday links to articles in the Indian press reporting that Gagan Global, a New-York company that describes itself as a provider of "niche recruitment services to the U.S. transportation industry," has been recruiting drivers in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

The Indian truck drivers are applying for H-2B visas, which are designed for temporary or peak season labor. But to be able to hire a H-2B worker, a U.S. company has to certify to the Department of Labor that there is a shortage of workers in its industry. Sanchez is quick to editorialize that "you might think it would be a tough sell to convince the [Department of Labor] that there aren't enough American truck drivers." But the reality of a driver shortage doesn't seem to be in serious dispute, judging by comments on trucker forums, detailed studies commissioned by the American Trucking Associations (which represents employers), and testimony from organizations that represent independent truckers.

According to "The U.S. Truck Driver Shortage: Analysis and Forecasts," a study done by the consultancy firm Global Insight for the American Trucking Associations, the trucking industry is currently desperately hustling for heavy-duty long-haul drivers, and will be short some 114,000 workers by 2014. Among the reasons: Turnover in the industry is huge. The 2000 recession drove trucker wages below what could be earned from construction work. Long-haul trucking is a tough way to make a living, with long hours away from home. Trucking is also predominantly a profession filled by white men, and the cohort of white males aged 35-54 will decline by 3 million over the next 10 years.

The Global Insight study dismisses the possibility that importing foreign truckers under the H-2B visa program will make a dent in the problem. It concludes that the trucking industry has to raise wages and figure out driver schedules that allow drivers to spend more time with their families. That is precisely the argument made by the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) in formal comments to the Department of Labor in 2005 arguing against a proposed change in how H-2B visas are granted. At issue was whether the requirement for "labor certification" -- in which U.S. companies have to prove that there is a shortage of the workers they need -- should be dropped, and replaced by a simple "attestation" requirement, in which the companies just get to say that they tried to find workers and couldn't.

"The shortage of qualified drivers is a critical problem that has plagued the trucking industry for many years," said the OOIDA. "[But] it is not a temporary situation that can be solved by the importation of temporary foreign workers under the H-2B program. Rather, this is an ongoing problem resulting from low pay, long hours, and generally poor working conditions."

Where have we heard this story before? Just as in the debate over illegal immigration and agricultural work, and in the showdown in the software industry over H-1B visas and outsourcing, employers are complaining that there aren't enough workers, and workers are saying just pay us more, and the shortage will disappear.

Capital, meet labor. Labor, meet capital.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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