In 2018, the trucking industry was short roughly 60,800 drivers – up nearly 20% from 2017’s figure of 50,700. If current trends hold, the American Trucking Association (ATA) says the shortage could rise to more than 160,000 by 2028.
The driver shortage is a problem for the entire supply chain, as 71.4% of all freight tonnage is moved on the nation’s highways, ATA says in its Truck Driver Shortage Analysis 2019 report.
“The increase in the driver shortage should be a warning to carriers, shippers and policymakers, because if conditions don’t change substantively, our industry could be short just over 100,000 drivers in five years and 160,000 drivers in 2028,” ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello said in a news release announcing the report.
To meet the U.S. demand, the trucking industry must hire roughly 1.1 million new drivers, or an average of nearly 110,000 per year, to replace retiring drivers and keep on pace with the growth in the economy.
What’s causing the shortage?
The trucking industry has a relatively high average age of the existing workforce, ATA says. The average driver age in the for-hire, over-the-road truckload industry is 46. Other trucking sectors such as less-than-truckload and private carriers have an even higher average age. As drivers retire, they often go into the for-hire truckload labor pool to recruit drivers.
“For the last year and a half, it’s been really tough to find drivers period. Put qualified on top of that and good drivers on top of that, and well it’s been impossible,” says Brian Stoller, owner of Stoller Trucking in Gridley, Ill. “Employees today want the perfect work day scenario with evenings off so they don’t miss any events, but that’s not conducive for the demand of transportation needs. It’s a change that we’re all seeing across the U.S. – it’s hard to find good qualified workers and truck driving falls right into that.”
In addition, the trucking industry struggles to attract all segments of the population. In 2018, only 6.6% of the drivers were women. In 2018, 40.4% were minorities.
Perhaps the greatest challenge is finding qualified drivers, ATA says. This makes the impact of the shortage much worse than the numbers suggest.
Many carriers have strict hiring criteria based on driving history, experience, and other factors. As a result, despite receiving applications for employment, motor carriers are finding few eligible candidates, which is a quality issue.
According to a 2015 ATA study, 88% of fleets said they were getting enough applicants, but many were simply not qualified. There is no reason to believe that this situation has improved since 2015, the report says. The cost of lowering hiring standards can be significant in the long run when accounting for increased insurance premiums and accidents.
“The pool of truckers has shrunk,” says Jason Wishall, owner of Wishall Transport in Tolono, Ill. “There are so many more construction jobs with the economy being better these days. Many drivers are switching back to the trades. There’s just not a ton of qualified candidates out there.”
And drivers know they are in demand, Wishall adds. Drivers can move to other jobs pretty easily. For example, his business is primarily over-the-road, but it’s not a life that everyone finds appealing.
Costello said the industry needs to do more to recruit and retain drivers, whether by removing barriers for younger drivers to begin careers as drivers, attracting more demographic diversity into the industry, or easing the transition for veterans.
What will happen to the supply chain?
If the trend stays on course, expect to see severe supply chain disruptions resulting in significant shipping delays, higher inventory carrying costs and perhaps even shortages at stores, the report says.
“The shortage of truckers will have a huge impact on the economy,” Wishall says. “Some trucking companies won’t be able to get enough drivers and some may go out of business. I expect the cost of goods will be higher because the products have to move. But if you can’t find enough drivers to move them, what will you do?”
Wishall has had to raise prices to increase salaries for his drivers, offer better health insurance benefits and come up with other incentives such as bonuses for current employees who bring other drivers on.
Stoller has made similar adjustments – offering sign-on bonuses, increasing health insurance benefits and providing more vacation and personal days.
He hopes the government will also make adjustments to electronic logging device (ELD) rules so the drivers have a little more leniency throughout their day. Although Stoller supports ELDs, he believes the rules have to be reasonable.
“That is probably hurting us the most in our search for good, qualified drivers,” Stoller says. “Truckers have their hands tied on how much money they can make when you restrict their driving hours. Long periods of sitting go against their drive time.”
If shippers and receivers could help get trucks in and out faster, that would help, Stoller says.
“The trucker shortage is a challenge and it’s affecting everyone,” Wishall says. “It costs me more money each year to keep our truckers. When I have to keep increasing my prices, that impacts all of us at the stores where we want to buy products.”
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