Regardless of some tangible evidence of economic improvement, one related area continuing to come up short is finding and retaining qualified truck drivers. That sentiment rings especially true when looking at data released today by the American Trucking Associations (ATA) pertaining to truck driver turnover rates.
In the first quarter edition of its Trucking Activity Report, the ATA said that the turnover rate for large and small truckload carriers rose, citing an improving economy and stiff competition for well-trained drivers.
First quarter turnover for large truckload fleets—that have at least $30 million in annual revenue—hit 97 percent, which tops the fourth quarter’s 90 percent and represents the highest third quarter large truckload turnover rate since the third quarter of 2012, which reached 104 percent, according to the ATA. The 97 percent turnover rate was slightly below the 2012 cumulative average of 98 percent.
The turnover rate for smaller truckload fleets hit 82 percent in the first quarter, up from 76 percent in the fourth quarter, matching the 2012 average and below the most recent high of 94 percent in the third quarter of 2012. And on the less-than-truckload side, which the ATA said is typically far less volatile than other trucking segments, first quarter turnover increased 15 percent in the first quarter compared to 10 percent in the fourth quarter.
“Our data shows that competition for drivers across the industry remains high,” said American Trucking Associations Chief Economist Bob Costello in a statement. “It is our fear that this competition for drivers may be exacerbated by losses in productivity caused by recent regulatory changes such as the new hours-of-service rules. If the economy continues to improve as we expect it to, we’ll see competition for drivers intensify, which will increase not just the turnover rate and exacerbate the driver shortage, but will push costs for fleets higher as well.”
As LM has reported, driver turnover and tight capacity are two things that clearly go hand in hand in the trucking industry, especially during the current tight market conditions, spurred on by a relatively slow economic recovery and the December 2010 implementation of CSA, as well as the July 1 changes to truck driver hours-of-service (HOS).
And regulations like CSA and HOS, as well as Electronic On Board Recorders (EOBR) continue to play a major role in carriers’ being hesitant to increase capacity and subsequently hire drivers, which continues to be challenging, as evidenced by ATA’s data.
Projections from freight transportation forecasting consultancy FTR Associates estimate that this problem is likely to get worse and by 2014 the driver shortage could be in the 250,000 range, which Stifel Nicolaus analyst John Larkin said is going to create a capacity shortage which will translate into “fairly sizable rate increases” that might be steeper than what has occurred during the slow growth period over the last couple of years.
While the driver turnover rate, especially for large carriers, remains high, it could reach even greater heights should the economy see material gains.
“If the economy were to recover quickly, there could be some unintended consequences,” said Derek Leathers, president and chief operating officer of Werner Enterprises. “The driver shortage would be much tighter and more acute and make things that much tougher for carriers. We simply won’t be able to [fill] enough trucks to haul the freight produced if things take off.”
The Werner executive said that current math does not support it, given the fact that the average age of the U.S. truck driver is close to 50, coupled with the hundreds of thousands of drivers age 60 or above that are retiring, while the future generation is comprised of a much small pool of future drivers. And out of that pool is a much smaller amount of people wanting to get a CDL and drive a truck.