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Truck Driver Shortage: Overhauling an Industry

You can’t detour around the numbers — America is facing a significant truck driver shortage. Worries about future shipping capacity have driven beyond the desks of industry analysts and into the minds of logistics managers everywhere.

The ground transportation industry was short about 60,000 drivers in 2017. If current trends hold, the shortage could grow to more than 174,000 by 2026.

Most large companies rely on the shipping industry to stock their shelves and deliver their products to customers’ doorsteps, and they’re afraid they’ll face a lack of capacity as demand greatly outweighs driver availability.

Without enough reliable drivers to move their materials, business stand to lose significant revenue and market share. The businesses that have access to reliable fleets or who build fleets internally will maintain the greatest capacity security.

Truck driver shortage: The major causes

One of the only good things about the commercial truck driver shortage is that the industry can clearly see it coming down the road. For nearly five years, the American Trucking Association has been tracking the causes and rates of a growing driver shortage. The industry organization said the gap eased slightly in 2016 before ramping back up to historic levels.

Driver attrition could be the most immediate and impactful challenge for the future of the U.S. commercial drivers pool. Many drivers who got their commercial driver’s licenses 40 years ago are retiring, without sufficient workers to replace them.

The average age of drivers in the over-the-road truckload industry is 49, compared to 42 for the average American worker.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, a full-time job driving a tractor trailer presented a solid career proposition for mostly young men who weren’t interested in going to college. As attitudes about blue collar work changed in the late 1980s and 1990s, more young people chose to pursue college degrees rather than take driving jobs.

This change created a gap in the truck driver workforce, one the industry is desperately trying to close. However, they find the demands of a career in long-haul trucking are a tough sell to today’s young workers.

Commercial drivers spend days away from home and family; they face dangers on the roadway and potential health problems caused by their work and environment. The industry also faces competition from warehouse jobs which, though they demand long hours and physical work, allow employees to go home every night. 

Low driver pay also fails to attract many qualified new workers. In 2017, the last year for which data is available, the average salary for a driver was $44,500. That wage is up more than 10% since 2012, but it still lags the annual U.S. wage for all occupations by about $6,000.

Trucking shortage: Other pressures

Historically narrow recruitment: For generations, the commercial trucking industry advertised to attract mostly Caucasian men as drivers. This practice created a culture that has dissuaded interest from women and people of color, two important demographics for employers who want to attract blue-collar workers.

Racial demographics have been shifting, however, with minority drivers making up about 38% of the total workforce, up from 26% in 2001. It was recently reported that Indian-American Sikhs are now filling driver shortages in western U.S. states.

Last-mile logistics: Another pressure on the lack of truckers in the United States stems from the same phenomenon that’s challenging nearly every aspect of the retail business — quick turnaround shipping. The demand for Amazon-style overnight and two-day shipping now pervades the market, with no sign of slowing.

Consumers’ time demands in shipping have made last-mile logistics the most relevant concern for retail companies, exacerbating their fears over trucking shortages. A hyper-focus on last-mile logistics demands larger fleets with more experienced drivers.

To address their concerns about truck drivers abusing opioids or other drugs, many companies have turned to hair follicle drug testing for a more reliable — but more disqualifying — method of securing their fleets.

Truck driver shortage: Working on the problem

Now that stakeholders see the challenges that lie ahead, trucking companies, industry groups, government advocates and educational institutions are devising plans to shore up trucking fleets. They’re looking for ways to develop and recruit new drivers, and offer benefits that keep them behind the wheel.

To attract younger workers, some companies are rethinking the way they pay new drivers. Walmart is hiring hundreds of drivers in anticipation of the upcoming shortage, offering starting salaries of nearly $90,000, far above the national average. Their compensation system incorporates payment on both a per-mile basis and also per delivery.

Other companies offer generous signing bonuses to new drivers, though some doubt the quality of these offerings. They tend to lure in new employees with promises of a large cash payout that is often contingent on time or performance.

Some are calling for a complete overhaul of trucker compensation, with a normal salary based on hours worked, not miles covered or deliveries made.

Enrollment may be trending up at trucking schools, as they advertise to prospective students about the opportunities available in the industry.

To bolster the number of available truck drivers in the U.S. employment pool, some industry groups and lawmakers are pushing for a bill that would allow CDL drivers as young as 18 to drive across state lines routes. Current law prohibits CDS drivers who are 20 or younger to complete interstate hauls. Removing this age restriction could mean thousands of new drivers flooding into the workforce.

A thorough research about the potential truck driver shortage in 2019 is underway. Subscribe to our blog in the form below to get notified once the research is available. 

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