The decades-old truck driver shortage, now estimated at 80,000, is bad and getting worse because of the nationwide service worker shortage, early retirements, the global pandemic and other acute economic factors. That is up from 61,000 just three years ago, in 2018.
If things are bad now, inaction on the part of shippers, carriers and others will make it worse. A new study concludes the trucking industry will have to recruit nearly 1 million new drivers by 2030 to replace retiring drivers and those who leave the industry voluntarily or otherwise.
That’s the word from Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Associations (ATA). He formally released new estimates of the current driver shortage and discussed several proposed solutions during ATA’s Management Conference and Exhibition in Nashville, Tenn.
“Fleets are part of the solution, government is part of the solution and shippers are part of the solution,” Costello said.
ATA is trying to be pro-drivers, heaping praise on their tenacity during the COVID-19 shutdown.
In his annual State of the Industry Address, ATA President and CEO Chris Spear praised the industry’s efforts to keep the country moving through the pandemic and continued work to address issues critical to trucking.
“Throughout this pandemic, truckers proved how we make a difference. There was no playbook. Yet our drivers are once again this industry’s most valuable players. You’re among an elite list of professionals that include scientists, first responders and healthcare providers,” Spear said. “When many in this nation sheltered in place, you maintained composure and answered the call.”
Costello warned that shippers have a large role in being part of the solution instead of being blamed for long wait times at their docks, part of reasons cited when quitting.
“This is a warning to shippers, the supply chain, everything. When you look at demographics and [if] nothing changes, the driver shortage could reach 160,000 in the next 10 years,” Costello said.
Over the next decade, the trucking industry needs to attract 1 million new workers because of the pending wave of retirements, Costello predicted.
He remembers releasing ATA’s first analysis of the driver shortage in 2005, and is somewhat amazed that the same reasons for the issue remain today, 16 years hence.
“We have a demographics problem,” Costello said. “It was true in 2005 and they’re true today.”
The basic issue is a driver has to be 21 to move interstate freight. After graduating high school, ATA says few people wait that long to start careers.
There is also a problem with fleets “churning” drivers and competing with each other by poaching each other’s drivers. Driver turnover among large TL fleets is about 95 percent annually.
“Shippers absolutely are part of the solution,” he said. “If shippers turned their drivers around faster and lowered waiting times to a minimum amount, you would increase effective capacity without adding one truck to the road. That is absolutely part of the solution.”
Some other facts:
While ATA was supportive of the creation of that national clearing house of illicit drug users, the clearing house is reducing the pool of experienced drivers.
“Things like infrastructure affects the driver shortage,” he said. “When you sit in congested traffic, that affects you. “I think the supply chain problems of today are a glimpse into the future if we don’t fix this. At some point, what will happen is you will go to the grocery store, the driver shortage will get so bad, instead of seeing seven kinds of apples, you will see three. “We are attracting new drivers to this industry,” Costello said, citing a slight drop in the driver gap in 2019 prior to when the COVID pandemic hit in 2020. “The problem is we’re not attracting enough.”
Costello said just as there is not one cause of the driver shortage, there is not one single solution to the crisis.
ATA is backing a pilot program that would allow about 3,000 under-21 drivers to haul interstate freight. It’s included in the $1 trillion infrastructure package wending its way through Congress.
“It’s not the only way to solve the driver shortage, but it’s part of it,” Costello said.
Wages are rising five times as high as they rose has in the past. But ATA cites studies that show simply raising driver pay – now close to $60,000 to start – is not enough to solve the problem.
“You have to pay them more but pay alone will not solve this problem,” Costello said. “A lot of drivers say, ‘I’m fine with what I’m making. But I want to be home more.’”
Lifestyle is becoming more of an issue, especially in the non-union, long-haul truckload sector. “That’s very, very telling,” Costello said.
Booming e-commerce sales are also causing a push for more courier and van delivery drivers. Even though those jobs tend to pay less than long-haul trucking, the lifestyle aspect is better than being away from home for up to three weeks at a time.
“You learn the business, and then you get a local trucking job that keeps you home more,” Costello said.
He said private fleets and unionized LTL companies (which tend to pay more) are faring far better than the non-union, long-haul truckload sector.
“The bulk of this is an over-the-road, truckload problem,” Costello said.