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What’s Going on With the Driver Shortage?

  • In 2017, the American trucking industry revenue went just over 700 billion dollars, making it higher than the GDP of more than 150 countries. 
  • Over 5% of all jobs in the US are related to trucking
  • In the US, 70% of all freight is transported by trucks 
  • 90% of the food we eaten in America is hauled by refrigerated trucks
  • 1 out of every 14 jobs in the US is related to or created by the trucking industry 
  • Without freight truckers, our grocery stores would run out of food in 3 days

With numbers like these, it seems a wonder that there are widely accepted fears of driver shortages in the logistics industry. For such an important part of the US economy, and in a sector that we rely on so much, it can seem strange that these numbers are being threatened by the absence of the workers we usually depend on for our daily necessities. At a time when online markets and delivery usage is soaring, what’s keeping the numbers low?

The American Trucking Association reported that, “In 2018, the trucking industry was short roughly 60,800 drivers, which was up nearly 20% from 2017’s figure of 50,700. If current trends hold, the shortage could swell to over 160,000 by 2028.” 

They attribute these shortages primarily to an aging population of drivers, as well as a lack of expansion concerning the type of people who do become truck drivers. When the average truck driver is 46 years old, what happens to the voids they leave behind when they retire? Or when the unhealthy lifestyle of many drivers finally catches up to them? Truckers are twice as likely to be obese as the rest of the general population, have higher rates of smoking, and may have more trouble getting proper sleep and exercise as a result of their occupation. A study by HireRight found that health issues contributed to 1 in 5 drivers leaving the industry. 

Other outlets that could be explored to help combat the shortage lies in creating an environment that leads to more workers applying for these jobs. The US Department of Labor has documented female truck drivers at only 6.6%, a figure that has barely risen in the last two decades. Some argue that the minimum driver age should be lowered from 21 to 18, which would allow more people to get into the workforce straight out of highschool, rather than being snatched up by trade industries or other employers. Individuals under 21 can hold CDL licenses, but cannot cross state lines, exempting them from many job requirements. 

These numbers, for better or worse, have undoubtedly seen a change due to the COVD-19 pandemic that swept across the globe this year. Many different sources seemed to find the shortage had been stalled by the swift increase in transportation needs as drivers struggled to maintain a sense of normalcy for people across the country. However, there were also frustrations that COVID-19 had shut down training centers and DMVs, slowing the acquisition of new drivers almost to a complete halt. Don Lefeve, CEO of Commercial Vehicle Training Association, “estimates that the number of people obtaining CDLs will drop by at least 40% this year.” Companies are reluctant to hire drivers they find unqualified, as professionalism and reliability in their drivers helps mark their own businesses as trustworthy and competent. 

But as freight volume increases, so does the strain on the driver pool. Steve Banker of Forbes denies the driver shortage outright, claiming an economist standpoint that blames certain market conditions for the perceived lack of experienced workers. Banker uses a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to defend his position, acknowledging that, “[T]he bureau cites an annual ATA survey of carriers, which shows that, between 1995 and 2017, the annual turnover rate at large TL carriers averaged 94 percent and that at small TL carriers averaged 79 percent. In contrast, the rate at firms in a different segment, less-than-truckload, averaged only 12 percent.” However, he states that high turnover rates are separate from the industry facing a driver shortage, and that much of TL freight operates under contracts spanning years, explaining why freight rates are not adjusting as quickly.

Overall, what we can see for certain is that the numbers show there are not enough drivers in the industry. Whether that is related to market conditions, aging worker populations, or any other combination of factors, it is important for the logistics industry to take a good look at how they can improve their attractiveness to new applications so as to improve the current state of affairs and make the trucking industry more available to the rest of the working population. 

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