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story.lead_photo.caption Graph showing information about Trade with Mexico - Photo by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette / SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics

The trucking industry is increasingly turning to minorities such as Mexican immigrants to meet a critical need for drivers, even as President Donald Trump and others deem them unsafe and a threat to American jobs.

But trucking jobs are not being lost to Mexico, nor anywhere else. The U.S. trucking industry's biggest demographic, 46-year-old white males, aren't filling all the available cabs, and drivers that age will be ready to retire within about 20 years.

Of the roughly 27 million Hispanic people in the U.S. labor force as of 2016, 16.4 million of them are from Mexico, almost triple from 1988, when about 5.5 million Mexicans were counted in the labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Kevin Reid, chief executive officer of the National Minority Truckers Association, said immigrants in the future will play a larger role in the trucking industry. He said the industry's leadership has to do a better job of utilizing immigrants and other minorities if trucking is to remain the backbone of U.S. shipping. More than 60 percent of all freight traded among the North American Free Trade Agreement countries is hauled by truck, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

"Minorities are being targeted, and demographers are advising the industry leaders to target minorities to provide solutions to solve the [shortage] issue," Reid said. "We're making strides, but we're not being creative. As an industry, we are waiting for someone else to ignite and initiate something."

A driver shortage and company retention struggle is on full display this fall, as companies report third-quarter earnings, showing their costs to recruit and retain drivers are rising. J.B. Hunt Transport Services on Oct. 13 reported a $33.8 million spike in this area of its business compared to the same quarter a year ago.

Xavier Medina Vidal, a political science and Latino studies professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said it is no coincidence that the tense renegotiation of NAFTA comes amid Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric. He said the government and interest groups are centering their politics on cultural rather than business arguments, which is peculiar, he said, given the president's business background.

NAFTA and resentment toward Mexicans are directly related, he said, because debate over NAFTA gives racial hostility a stage in business and everyday culture.

"When you have control of a narrative, you can make it to be whatever you want it to be," the professor said. "It's interesting to me how the business community [is] allowing the president to run this narrative."

The Teamsters union and the Owner Operator, Independent Trucking Association, are among the most vocal critics of cross-border long-haul trucking. They continue to claim that Mexican carriers pose a safety risk to Americans on the highways, despite Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration reports from a cross-border pilot program that ended in 2014 that show Mexican carriers did not receive an abnormal number of violations.

There is also the argument that Mexico's low wages give an unfair competitive advantage to Mexican carriers. They are indeed lower than the average minimum wages of the United States and Canada.

Gary Hafbauer, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, is among the chorus of researchers who point out the United States has other trade partners whose workers have lower average wages than U.S. workers. He said the Mexican wages argument "has become an article of faith for those who oppose NAFTA."

"Mexico feels discriminated against in many respects," Hafbauer said. "You pick out a foreigner who looks particularly devilish, and that is what has been going on in our country."

Data from the U.S. Federal Reserve show the average wages of American transportation and warehouse workers -- the category that includes truck drivers -- has fallen by about $10 per hour from what they were in the early 1970s, when adjusted for inflation.

The president is popular among many truck drivers. In his rollout of his administration's tax reform agenda, Trump stood before an American Trucking Associations big-rig in Harrisburg, Pa., and told truckers, "America First means putting America's trucking first."

Overdrive, a trucking industry magazine, found about 75 percent of its readership supported Trump in July 2016. That was a spike from a previous poll, a year earlier, when the magazine found about 45 percent of its readership supported him.

"The rhetoric creates a culture," University of Texas at Austin professor Ricardo Ainslie said. "It creates an environment in which Mexicans who are stepping onto the streets of Dallas or Little Rock have to worry that the average American citizens may at least wonder, 'Is this person safe?'"

The Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association said immigration has nothing to do with the driver shortage, and declined to address the notion. But Medina Vidal, the UA professor, said as the demographics of skilled-labor industries change, it will become ever-more clear to people that cultural issues are entwined with business needs.

"Markets have a way of addressing social questions," Medina Vidal said. "Mexicans have always been there to fill the labor needs of the United States."

Photo by SOURCE: Bureau of Transportation Statistics via the U.S. Federal Reserve of St. Louis / Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Graph showing Falling wages of transportation and warehouse workers

SundayMonday Business on 10/22/2017

Print Headline: Trucking sees immigrants as way to fill jobs

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