TheTrucker.com

How 2020 changed the job outlook from the driver’s seat

Reading Time: 3 minutes
How 2020 changed the job outlook from the driver’s seat
COVID-19 has caused another change to trucking: The pandemic has resulted in many people staying home, and those people are purchasing goods like never before.

Anyone who’s followed the trucking industry knows that carriers who complain about a driver shortage are often regarded with the same disdain as the boy who cried “wolf.” It’s been suggested by many that more pay and better working conditions might attract enough new drivers to the industry to alleviate any perceived shortage.

This year, however, is different — and that could be good news for drivers everywhere.

When a handful of COVID-19 cases exploded into a pandemic in the U.S. back in March and April 2020, freight levels dwindled as manufacturing plants shut down or severely restricted output. Imports plummeted as factories in other countries did the same. Many carriers reduced their driving staff with furloughs or layoffs.

By May, things started picking up. But a funny thing happened with those out-of-work drivers. They didn’t come back.

Some of them who were nearing the end of their trucking careers simply retired. Those who intended to return to trucking were given an incentive to delay their return by the U.S. Congress: A $600 per week supplement to unemployment compensation was included in a stimulus package passed near the end of March.

The government helped other drivers stay home in a different way. In January, before the onset of the pandemic, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse went into effect. The intent of the Clearinghouse is to consolidate drug and alcohol testing information so it’s more readily available to carriers who are considering a driver hire when compared to the older process of contacting each of a driver’s past employers and hoping for an answer.

An added benefit of the Clearinghouse is that drivers who test positive or refuse to test can’t return to work without complying with the terms of a return-to-duty program monitored by a substance-abuse professional.

To the surprise of many, a huge percentage of drivers who have tested positive in the Clearinghouse have chosen to simply leave the trucking industry rather than undergo a treatment program. And, with many states legalizing the sale and use of marijuana — the substance responsible for the largest number of positive tests — the problem won’t go away any time soon.

For 2020, the Clearinghouse reported 51,998 drivers with at least one violation (positive, refusal, etc.). Of those, 34,769 (nearly 67%) did not even attempt the return-to-work process. Add in the number of those who started but did not complete the process, and the total of drivers lost to drug and alcohol testing in 2020 climbs to 45,475 (87.5%) of all drivers with violations.

As the industry was losing drivers last year, the pipeline that creates new drivers for the industry slowed to a trickle. CDL schools nationwide either shut down entirely or reduced enrollment in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. New drivers who found a school to attend found that many states had closed down driver-testing facilities, causing huge delays in issuing new commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs).

As the number of drivers available to hire continues to shrink, some drivers who are staying in trucking still impact the driver shortage by moving to different types of jobs. As the economy rebounded from its April low point, freight levels have grown faster than available trucks, pushing freight rates to record levels. Drivers who want to own their own trucks find these higher rates attractive.

Until 2020, monthly registrations for new authority (government permission to operate a trucking company) only reached 4,000 a few times. According to DOT statistics, registrations topped 5,000 for six consecutive months as truckers opted to strike out on their own. (Note: Drivers who become owner-operators don’t necessarily leave the industry, but they exacerbate the driver shortage because they are no longer available for carriers to hire to fill their own trucks.)

COVID-19 has caused another change to trucking: The pandemic has resulted in many people staying home, and those people are purchasing goods like never before. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of parcel and local delivery jobs grew by more than 8% in 2020. Some drivers took advantage, exchanging over-the-road positions for jobs that paid well and allowed them to be home every night.

While a driver shortage is a huge concern for carriers that are trying to keep a fleet of expensive trucks rolling, it can actually be a boon to drivers. Many carriers turn to pay increases to attract and retain drivers, while others implement large sign-on bonuses. Some offer expanded vacation options, better equipment or other perks. All of these, and more, are expected in 2021 as competition intensifies for qualified drivers. Figuratively and literally, that puts trucking professionals right where they belong — in the driver’s seat.

Cliff Abbott

Cliff Abbott is an experienced commercial vehicle driver and owner-operator who still holds a CDL in his home state of Alabama. In nearly 40 years in trucking, he’s been an instructor and trainer and has managed safety and recruiting operations for several carriers. Having never lost his love of the road, Cliff has written a book and hundreds of songs and has been writing for The Trucker for more than a decade.

Avatar for Cliff Abbott
Cliff Abbott is an experienced commercial vehicle driver and owner-operator who still holds a CDL in his home state of Alabama. In nearly 40 years in trucking, he’s been an instructor and trainer and has managed safety and recruiting operations for several carriers. Having never lost his love of the road, Cliff has written a book and hundreds of songs and has been writing for The Trucker for more than a decade.
For over 30 years, the objective of The Trucker editorial team has been to produce content focused on truck drivers that is relevant, objective and engaging. After reading this article, feel free to leave a comment about this article or the topics covered in this article for the author or the other readers to enjoy. Let them know what you think! We always enjoy hearing from our readers.

COMMENT ON THIS ARTICLE

Clark Transfer