Some trucking organizations and carriers claim it’s the most important issue the trucking industry is facing today. Others, such as the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) and many drivers, claim it’s an imaginary issue that will go away as soon as the industry starts paying fairly.
What is it? It’s the driver shortage.
An Oct. 25 update from the American Trucking Associations (ATA) claimed the trucking industry would need a record high of over 80,000 drivers by the end of 2021. That number is expected to more than double by the year 2030.
“Because there are a number of factors driving the shortage, we have to take a number of different approaches,” said Bob Costello, chief economist for ATA. “The industry is raising pay at five times the historic average, but this isn’t just a pay issue. We have an aging workforce, a workforce that is overwhelmingly male and finding ways to address those issues is key to narrowing the shortage.”
The American Trucking Research Institute (ATRI) listed the driver shortage as the No. 1 concern on its Top 10 Trucking Industry Issues for 2021, as determined by a survey of more than 2,500 stakeholders. Driver retention and driver pay were the next two items on the list.
In recent days, President Joe Biden has pledged to address the issue. A Dec. 16 statement from the White House announced a near $10 million program support a registered apprenticeship programs as well as resources to support veteran recruitment.
Biden’s team also pledged a study of current driver compensation, including lengthy wait times at shippers and receivers. Some studies have suggested that the average driver spends 30 to 40 hours a week waiting to get loaded or unloaded, time that is paid at very low rates, if at all.
Detractors, however, suggest that any perceived “shortage” of drivers is simply a market response to poor working conditions and a pay scale that hasn’t kept pace with inflation.
In August, Levi Pugh, executive vice president of OOIDA, sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo that described the driver shortage as a “myth.” Pugh claimed the shortage is a creation of carriers and trucking trade associations used to “support the cheapest-possible labor.”
Pugh stated that the FMCSA issues more than 400,000 new CDLs annually, providing enough drivers to solve any shortage several times over.
It might be hard to convince carriers that are struggling to hire enough drivers to keep trucks moving the driver shortage is a mythical problem. At the same time, an industry that routinely experiences driver turnover rates in excess of 90% has to recognize that retention is an issue.
Ed Naugle, president and CEO of Walbridge, Ohio-based Naugle Cos., employs several strategies to keep turnover under 40% annually.
“Our difference is that we don’t take new drivers,” he said. “We try to make sure they have at least five years of experience.”
Naugle said paying drivers by salary has made a difference in retention.
Hayden Carden, founder and chief innovation officer of Idelic, a developer of software management tools, thinks new drivers aren’t getting an accurate picture of what the trucking job entails.
“When it comes to the driver shortage, some of the biggest areas that we start to understand is that fleets are having a very, very hard time retaining their drivers,” he explained. “And a lot of that is happening in the first 90 days.”
Carden said carriers often use orientation to take care of paperwork and regulatory items rather than as an opportunity to help new drivers acclimate.
“A lot of fleets have a hard time distinguishing the difference between orientation and onboarding,” he said.
The ATRI study suggests bringing younger drivers into the industry as a potential solution. Allowing the use of 18- to 20-year-olds in interstate commerce would allow the industry to compete with trades and businesses that hire candidates right out of high school, instead of waiting until several years later — when they may have already chosen a career.
Naugle acknowledges that states that currently allow younger drivers already have a wealth of safety data, but he’s still in favor of a pilot program.
“When I was 18, I was more mature than most of my peers,” he said. “(However,) there are some 18-year-olds that are like 12-year-olds in their minds.”
He suggested a thorough interview and advanced testing might help to determine the driver’s fitness.
“I think there are other people at that same age that qualify for the military or, at least, have that same responsible attitude and maturity,” he said. “That’s what we want to tap into.”
Rather than using state lines as boundaries, Naugle suggested a limit, such as 250 miles from the terminal, might make more sense.
“I think that would be a fair limitation,” he noted.
ATRI also called for the expansion of the EB-3 Permanent Work Authorization permit that would allow carriers to recruit qualified applicants from foreign countries.
One area the industry could address is the loss of drivers who purchase their own equipment and obtain their own authority. In 2020, just under 77,000 new carriers were granted authority, according to the FMCSA. In 2021, the number had nearly doubled to almost 150,000 by the end of October, the latest numbers available at the time of this writing.
Carriers can approach the issue in two ways: 1) Improved pay and working conditions might encourage more drivers to remain company drivers; and 2) Those who buy equipment could be enticed to enter lease agreements, providing both truck and driver to a carrier.
Another potential relief area might be recruiting more women drivers, who currently represent only about 7% of the driver workforce.
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all fix for the driver shortage. There are, however, several avenues that could help the industry solve the problem with a combination of solutions. Few industries can offer a middle-class lifestyle with far less training than obtaining a college degree.
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.