For fifteen years the trucking industry has been plagued by a shortage of drivers. And for fifteen years, we have seen a continuous flow of information about the driver shortage and how it has affected, or will affect the shipping public. Since almost everyone has a different perspective, it is difficult to get a real estimate of the shortage and its impact.
In my opinion, the most reliable information comes from the American Trucking Associations (ATA). Every year since 2005 ATA has published a “Truck Driver Shortage Analysis, based on “demographic driver data, population growth by age data, tractor counts, and projected economic and industry growth information”. In their first report in 2005, ATA identified a shortage of approximately 20,000. Although the situation eased somewhat during the recession, as recovery began, the shortage returned. By 2017, the shortfall had increased to 50,000 and was estimated at 60,800 in 2018. It is expected to be slightly lower at the end of 2019, but if current trends continue, by 2028, there will be 160,000 empty seats.
ATA suggests five reasons for the shortage. First are the age demographics. The median age of an over the road (OTR) driver is 46, compared with 42 for all U.S. workers. Private fleets have an even higher median at 57. The average of new drivers currently being trained is 35. The current age requirement for an OTR driver in interstate commerce is 21, and ATA believes that the 18-21 age group should be allowed to cross state lines. While this might ease the shortage somewhat, personally I have a concern about an 18-year-old behind the wheel of a heavy rig speeding down the highway.
As far as gender is concerned, females make up about 47% of U.S. workers, but only 6.6% of drivers are female. This is a huge untapped pool of workers, and some carriers have emphasized the employment of females.
We all know that lifestyle leaves a lot to be desired. Most U.S. workers do not want a job that keeps them away from home for extended periods, provides a truck stop diet of chicken fried steak and macaroni and cheese, and results in any number of other inconveniences.
There are more alternative jobs available today. One popular option 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. In the South today, there is a major shortage of construction workers. Government intervention continues to be a source of concern. Such things as hours of service rules affect productivity and make it necessary to utilize more drivers and more equipment to haul the same amount of freight. Government regulations have decreased productivity over the years, and the new electronic log devices are expected to reduce productivity by 4-7%.
The driver shortage has been with us a long time, suggesting that solutions will not come easy. ATA outlines several possible remedies, however. They support the lowering of the interstate driving age requirements, but with additional training. They are sponsoring legislation entitled the “Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy (DRIVE) Safe Act” which would allow younger drivers, but would provide for extensive training and enhanced vehicle systems designed to force safe driving.
Pay increases and bonuses have become more common due to the dwindling supply of drivers and competitive pressures, and ATA recommends that carriers maintain a salary and benefit scale that are competitive.
While there are limits to what can be accomplished, wherever possible, more at-home time should be scheduled, and many carriers are attempting to establish relay systems and other programs to maximize the time off the road.
ATA also is working diligently through expanded public relations programs to improve the image of a job that often has been considered negatively.
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, or become lax. This problem will not be solved by the carriers alone.
Finally, the report mentions autonomous trucks but ATA believes we are decades away from “truly driverless Class 8 trucks traveling the highways”. For the time being, we need other solutions; and hopefully carriers and shippers alike will do their part to attract new drivers and support those already on the road.