Drug tests may play role in trucking labor shortage

Posted on 07/31/2017 by David Radke

Drug test

The current economic environment of low unemployment and rising wages has made the labor market competitive, particularly in certain industries like trucking and manufacturing. According to the American Trucking Associations, finding commercial vehicle drivers in the U.S. with the right skills and qualifications has been a challenge since at least 2015. In the ATA's opinion, the problem may only get worse in the years to come. However, pinpointing specific reasons behind the driver shortage, let alone solutions to those issues, have proven elusive.

"Drug testing is a point of contention between many employers and job applicants."

One possible explanation might come from a case study of sorts in the manufacturing sector. Writing in The New York Times, Nelson D. Schwartz reported on the state of the economy from the perspective of a few manufacturing companies in eastern Ohio. According to factory managers, workers and analysts, a primary point of contention between employers strapped for workers and employees looking for a job is the practice of mandatory drug testing.

"It's not that local workers lack the skills for these positions, many of which do not even require a high school diploma but pay $15 to $25 an hour and offer full benefits. Rather, the problem is that too many applicants — nearly half, in some cases — fail a drug test," Schwartz wrote.

In the case of one company, which makes galvanized steel containers for use in industrial boilers, the CEO estimated his company had been losing around $200,000 worth of potential business each quarter due to staff shortages. The company has been hiring aggressively, but turns away some 25 percent of applicants due to a failed drug test.

Drug testing as a condition for employment has long been a contentious issue, but in businesses like trucking and manufacturing, it's still an essential form of risk mitigation. Both jobs generally require operating or working around heavy machinery, and any physical or mental impairment could provoke a costly, potentially fatal accident.

"The lightest product we make is 1,500 pounds, and they go up to 250,000 pounds," said the manager of another steel plant interviewed by Schwartz. "If something goes wrong, it won't hurt our workers. It'll kill them — and that's why we can't take any risks with drugs."

Practical considerations

Few can point to much evidence to disprove the argument that drug abuse is a multifaceted, detrimental phenomenon in the modern American economy. Of particular concern is the rising rate of opioid abuse, which includes prescription painkillers as well as illicit street drugs. A study from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control estimated that prescription opioid abuse alone cost the U.S. economy $78.5 billion in 2013. However, industry experts say that figure is on the low end, since it doesn't account for lost productivity on account of workers being excluded from the labor force.

Opioid abuse in particular has claimed a record number of lives in recent years and continues to serve as a drain on much of the economy. The Federal Reserve and distinguished economists have even cited the trend as a factor in the nation's slow rate of GDP growth, with drug test failures as a contributing side effect. The rate of use and abuse of other substances, including cannabis (which is legal or available with a prescription in many states), has also played a role here.

Although the promise of well-paying jobs is persuasive, employers in any field don't have the authority to actually stop current or potential workers from using illegal drugs. However, they have been attempting to continue providing incentives to promote entrance into the workforce. 

One company profiled by Schwartz had begun bolstering its talent pool through third-party recruiting agencies and apprenticeships. While these each involve higher costs, most employers saw the value of these programs and considered them crucial in the current economic environment. They also found efforts like mentorships and apprentice programs through local colleges served the dual purpose of skills training and character development. By the time applicants complete these programs, they tend to be drug-free, even if that wasn't the case at the start.

The trucking industry may be facing similar problems, but might also benefit from these proactive solutions.

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