As the Truck Driver Shortage Looms, No Easy Solutions in Sight

The American Trucking Associations (ATA) has officially announced that the industry is facing a shortage of about 30,000 drivers. And in order to make up for retirement, turnover, and an overall growth of the industry, the next 10 years must see a yearly...


It is no secret that the U.S. has been experiencing a severe truck driver shortage for a while. And industry analysts have increasingly been signaling that this shortage is about to become one of the top problems that the U.S. economy will be facing in the coming years. With nearly 70% of all freight in the U.S. moved by trucks, we need to have a really deep look at what’s going on.

So what are the factors at play? Why are there not enough truck drivers, despite the unemployment rate of over 6%? And what are the possible solutions?


A short overview of the truck driver shortage

The American Trucking Associations (ATA) has officially announced that the industry is facing a shortage of about 30,000 drivers. And in order to make up for retirement, turnover, and an overall growth of the industry, the next 10 years must see a yearly employment of about 100,000 new drivers.

If not addressed, the ATA expects the shortage to surge to 230,000+ of lacking drivers within the next 5-7 years. Other industry analysts have estimated the numbers as being up to twice this amount. Yet, nationally, unemployment has been steady at around 6-7% and to many it remains a mystery how a driver shortage could occur at all, especially since trucking activity has risen with 4,1% when compared to last year. To many, but certainly not to contractors, who are all too well-aware of the challenges the industry is facing.


An increase in wages, but is it enough?

All over the country, contractors have been doing as much as they can in order to lure truckers back into the industry. One of the most common measures has been to raise wages. Yet, despite this, truckers have been slow to respond. How come?

In a piece at the New York Times, Neil Irwin points out that when adjusted for inflation, trucker wages have steadily been falling for the last ten years, reaching an average of about $40.94K yearly in 2013. Given the financial crisis, the impact of inflation, and the working conditions that come with such a job, Irwin argues, it is not surprising that potential drivers are wary of taking on a job.

Wages are seen by drivers as not adequately reciprocating the efforts they put into their job, along with the heightened sense of insecurity that came with the recession. While lower wages are a fact, not all, it seems, can be explained with corporate greed and the perception of blue collar workers as a disposable resource.


Legislative pressures on the trucking industry

Contractors have also had their fair share of pressure applied to them, and many a company has reported passing up thousands and even millions of work this year, due to a lack of truck drivers. And while contractors across the country are redirecting a significant chunk of money to raising wages, federal regulations have not made it easier for them either.

Increasingly freight contractors are pressured to move more, yet are limited by a constant series of regulations, such as the ones about commercial driver's licenses, environmental standards, and hours-of-service. The latter, for example, mean that contractors are forced to add more trucks and drivers in order to cover the same amount of work they used to have. Along with higher fuel costs and tolls, these make recruiting and retaining drivers an almost impossible task. 

But despite these challenges, driver retention remains a top priority. Hiring and training a new driver can cost up to $5,000 and with 90-100% of driver turnover in the truckload (TL) segment, this amounts to significant losses. A further goal is to grow the national pool of drivers. At this stage, if one contractor solves their shortage crisis, this often means that another one has had their drivers leave. Instead, various recruiting initiatives along with higher wages, aim to make the job attractive to new drivers.


Accommodating lifestyle factors

In order to attract new drivers, carriers have been reconsidering how they treat their drivers and what value they offer to them. Many of the nation's truck drivers have had a change of mind when it comes to how far they are willing to drive. Long-haul positions are less popular and carriers have been working on ways around this issue. Solutions include offering shorter routes that permit drivers to come back home at the end of the day. Alternatively, drivers coming from different cities now often meet midway to switch trailers and return. Trailer yards that allow for such relay trucking are one way to address the driver shortage from a logistic point of view.

But that's not all. An aging workforce further accounts for decreasing numbers of drivers. So, carriers have also had to appeal to younger generations and their set of values. Along with raising wages and offering better conditions, the former have sought to combat the stereotypical image of truck drivers by educating the public, offering driver open houses and creating user groups.

Yet, addressing the younger generations is one of the harder challenges, as young people cannot enter the market prior to 21, when they are allowed to get a commercial driver's license. And in reality, young drivers are rarely hired if below 25 years, leaving a lot of potential workers looking for a different job.



Carriers across the nation have vowed to do what they can - from increasing wages to offering more comfort and better conditions. And not all is grim. The shortage has also become the reason for more women across the nation to reconsider a career as a driver. As Virginia Clark stated in a recent article, trucking has been a calling as well as a great career opportunity, which after 20 years of service has turned into a yearly income of over $100,000.


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