Although we have heard and read about a shortage of over-the-road (OTR) drivers for several years, the recession and slow recovery have minimized the problem somewhat. The situation is changing quickly however, and at the recent management conference of the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the driver shortage was once again identified as the most critical issue facing the industry. According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. economy has just posted its best six-month stretch of growth in three years. The freight market is expected to grow; and according to ATA, the industry will need almost one million drivers and mechanics in the next ten years. By the end of this year, the shortage is expected to be the highest ever at 50,000.

ATA has just released a comprehensive analysis of the driver shortage, and identified four basic reasons for it. First of all, the average age of an OTR driver is 49, compared to 42 for all other workers; and they are not being replaced by younger workers as they retire. Since 21 is the minimum age for drivers in interstate commerce, the industry misses out on the 18-21 population, many of whom are in the process of selecting careers. Only 6% of all drivers are women, another untapped segment of the population.

Certainly the lifestyle leaves a lot to be desired and continues to be a major reason for lack of interest. Most Americans do not want a job that keeps them away from home for extended periods, provides a truck stop diet, and yields any number of other inconveniences. As the job market improves, there are other options for driver candidates. One popular alternative to driving has always been construction; and according to the U.S. Department of Labor, 1.3 million construction jobs have been added in the past five years.

Finally, increasing government regulations are reducing productivity. The new electronic log device requirement, due to be implemented next month, is expected to reduce productivity by 4-7%.

ATA suggests several courses of action to help alleviate the shortage. One, obviously, is to increase driver pay. Carriers are moving in this direction; but this doesn’t resolve the life style issue. Some carriers are finding ways to increase at home time, and the move toward shorter delivery distances in the retail sector will help some accomplish this.

ATA is attempting to get the interstate driver minimum wage reduced to 18. If successful, the industry might capture new drivers as they are making career decisions. They also are seeking ways to facilitate a smooth entrance of military personnel into driver positions.

For as long as we have heard about driver shortages, we have heard that shippers and receivers could treat drivers better and assist in improving their productivity. There is no question that the user industry could make significant improvements in this area. While some firms have done so, a surprising number have not.

To those who say autonomous vehicles will solve the problem, I say “maybe”. I believe we are several years away from widespread use; but down the road, as use expands, the technology could very well appeal to a broader base of younger workers. Certainly, the on-board supervisor of a driverless truck would be under less stress, and maybe even have a little more fun at work.

While hiring and retaining drivers is a carrier responsibility, shippers and receivers can help tremendously. Many of us can remember when a good economy resulted in capacity problems – not because of equipment but due to a shortage of qualified drivers. Hopefully, if this occurs again, those of us who depend on the carriers will try just a little bit harder.

Written By: Clifford F. Lynch