In the US, 72% of goods are shipped by truck. Whether driving a semi long-haul, or a smaller vehicle within urban centers, truck drivers play an absolutely vital role in our economy. However, according to American Trucking Associations (ATA) there are not enough drivers to go around. In fact, according to a 2021 report, the truck driver shortage hit a historic high last year, with 80,000 more drivers needed on the road in order to provide the optimal labor force to meet demand from shippers.
Given the vital role that truck drivers play in keeping the economy moving, a truck driver shortage could be a serious problem.
In this article, we’ll explore the causes of the shortage of truck drivers, the impact that it could have on the economy, and some solutions being implemented to tackle the shortage in the trucking industry. We’ll also explore whether there really is a truck driver shortage, and if not, then why do we hear so much about it?
According to ATA Chief Economist, Bob Costello, the trucker shortage is being caused by a number of factors. The first is the rapid growth in the freight economy which developed during and since the pandemic and has increased the industry’s demand for qualified drivers. This increase in demand is a problem as the population of drivers is aging. Currently, the average age of over-the-road drivers is 46, and the average age for trainees is 35 years old. This means that, in spite of growing demand, experienced drivers are retiring faster than they’re being recruited. This challenge is being further exacerbated by the federal mandate which bars anyone from driving commercially over state lines under the age of 21.
The 2021 report by the ATA also identifies several other contributing factors. The first is a lack of diversity in the workforce. Currently, only 7% of truckers are women, which demonstrates that there is a lot to be done in terms of making trucking a more widely-appealing career. There are also currently bars to entry for the formerly incarcerated and service-disabled veterans. Another factor is the incompatibility between marijuana laws and trucking requirements. While the consumption of marijuana is becoming legal in a growing number of states, consumption of the substance still prevents potential drivers from being able to pass compulsory drug tests, thus prohibiting them from working in the industry.
The pandemic further exacerbated the issue, as many truck driving schools had to close, or at the very least reduce their class sizes and numbers, meaning that fewer new drivers could enter the workforce. The report also acknowledges that there are many infrastructural and lifestyle related problems which can make trucking work unnecessarily tedious. These include problems such as a lack of overnight parking spots for truck drivers, as well as long and often unpaid wait times at shipping facilities.
In spite of the many advantages of trucking as a career, these factors in combination create conditions which may discourage or bar prospective drivers from entering the industry.
US supply chains are heavily dependent on truck drivers, as resources ranging from food, fuel, and materials for infrastructure projects are transported by road. According to a report by the White House, almost three quarters of all goods in the US are shipped by truck.
As a result, a lack of drivers in the trucking industry has the potential to threaten the efficient movement of goods, and the security of the US economy. If there aren’t enough drivers to meet shipping demand, then we could see serious supply chain disruptions, which mean delays in shipped goods, increased carrying costs, or even shortages of food and fuel in supermarkets and gas stations.
When discussing the driver shortage, it’s important to note that the issue is not universally recognized as a real problem. According to Todd Spencer, the President of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers’ Association, the driver shortage is actually a rhetorical bit used by the ATA to lobby for less strict regulations in the industry.
His argument is based on the fact that the ATA represents large trucking companies, who benefit from maximizing their profits, potentially at the expense of drivers themselves. By perpetuating the narrative of a driver shortage, the ATA can focus on gaining federal support by reducing the requirements needed to become a trucker, rather than working to improve conditions for truckers.
Spencer cites the high driver turnover rates as an indicator that conditions within the industry often drive truckers to leave their jobs, and says that these conditions are where attention should be most focused. He is particularly concerned by low pay, and lifestyle concerns such as long periods of time away from home.
Whether Spencer’s analysis is fair or not, it emphasizes the two key areas in which the industry can focus to increase its supply of commercial truck drivers; the industry can benefit both from the removal of some bars to entry, as well as improving conditions for workers to improve retention and provide greater incentive.
The ATA estimates that, in order to meet demand, 1.1 million truckers must join the industry over the next decade. While this may seem like an extreme goal, there is plenty which is already being put into practice to help recruit more drivers.
The Biden Administration has been vocal in recognising the importance of hiring and retaining more truckers, and has published a briefing which lays out the White House’s plan to help. The administration has already undertaken some initiatives, such as supporting state DMVs to issue more Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDLs) by providing them with $30,000 via the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
The FMCSA are taking other measures to keep trucks moving and to improve conditions for truckers. These include waiving some ELD requirements for trucks operating under certain conditions, extending the allowed hours of service for energy haulers and implementing the
DRIVE Safe Act. This stands for Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy, and is being passed to allow drivers under the age of 21 to begin handling class 8 vehicles.
The ATA is encouraging actions to improve demographic diversity, such as making the job more accessible for veterans and women, as well as tackling lifestyle concerns.
Webinars are taking place all across the internet offering advice to hauling companies for how they can improve conditions for their truckers, in combination with a range of other online resources which are helping new owner-operators to capitalize on the vacuum created by failing companies and the general shortage of drivers.
The implementation of technology such as load boards also has the potential to improve working conditions further, as they can drastically reduce downtime between jobs, and help truckers to be more efficient with their time.
Finally, the development of autonomous trucks also promises to help reduce the strain produced by the driver shortage. On the one hand, autonomous trucks will increasingly be used over the next decades to conduct long-distance hauls over highways with reduced or zero input required from a human driver.
This can both reduce the demand for human drivers, and/or improve conditions for human drivers by reducing some of the mental strain of staying alert for hours on end. On the other hand, as the hub-to-hub model of autonomous trucking becomes implemented, it’s likely that more driving jobs will become available which require drivers only to travel between a logistics hub and local destinations, while the long-distance driving is conducted by the truck alone. This will allow truckers to spend more time closer to home.
In summary, there are plenty of ways in which the industry is responding to the driver shortage, ranging between improving driver pay to loosening regulations. However, whether we will see the arrival of 1.1 million new drivers is yet to be determined.
At FleetOps, we can help you to integrate technology into your fleet, improving efficiency while making life easier for your truckers. For more information, explore the website and the FleetOps blog for the latest updates in the trucking industry.
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