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What’s the answer? There’s no single solution to the complex driver shortage problem

What’s the answer? There’s no single solution to the complex driver shortage problem

To some, it’s the most important issue the trucking industry is dealing with today. To others, it’s a red herring that represents the industry’s unwillingness to adapt.

What is it? It’s the truck driver shortage, of course.

An October 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.

The ATA numbers are calculated by subtracting the number of drivers currently in the market with an “optimal” number of drivers that is based on freight demand.

“Because there are a number of factors driving the shortage, we have to take a number of different approaches,” said ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello. “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 Transportation 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.

The shortage was discussed at an August 21 virtual meeting of the Advisory Committee on Supply Chain Competitiveness (ACSCC) in Washington, D.C. The committee voted to recommend a holistic approach toward attracting, training, and retaining drivers by reviewing training protocols as well as actions being considered by other government agencies. Specifically mentioned were truck parking and attracting more female drivers to the industry.

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.

On August 24, three days after the ACSCC meeting, Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) Executive Vice President Lewie Pugh sent a letter to U.S. 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 Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issues more than 400,000 new commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs) annually, providing enough drivers to solve any shortage several times over.

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It might be hard to convince motor carriers that are struggling to hire enough drivers to keep trucks moving that a shortage of qualified drivers is a mythical problem. At the same time, an industry that routinely experiences driver turnover rates in excess of 90% has to recognize retention as an issue. That issue was ranked second in ATRI’s 2021 report.

Nagle Companies’ President and CEO and TCA At-Large Officer Ed Nagle employs several strategies to keep turnover under 40% annually.

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“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.”

Nagle said paying drivers by salary has made a difference.

The ATRI study proposed an expedited launch of the DRIVE Safe Act pilot program that would allow 18- to 20-year-old CDL holders to drive interstate routes.

“I think that’s probably one of the most ludicrous rules,” remarked Nagle. “I can send a guy 250 miles to Portsmouth, Ohio, or 200 miles to Cincinnati, but I can’t run 25 miles over the line into Michigan. Even if I bring the load here to our terminal on the south side of Toledo, I can’t use an 18- or 19-year-old (driver) to take it the rest of the way because it’s still an interstate shipment.”

Allowing the use of 18- to 20-year-old drivers 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.

Nagle 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

He suggested a thorough interview and some 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,” explained Nagle. “That’s what we want to tap into.”

Rather than using state lines as boundaries, Nagle offered that a limit such as 250 miles from the terminal might make more sense.

“I think that would be a fair limitation,” he noted.

Hiring younger drivers would address another issue facing the trucking industry. The average age of over-the-road drivers is 46, according to the ATRI study. That factor, combined with the high prevalence of both obesity and smoking among drivers, causes drivers to leave the industry in large numbers due to inability to pass a recertification exam.

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 2021, the latest numbers available at the time of this writing.

Carriers can approach the issue in two ways. Improved pay and working conditions might encourage more drivers to remain company drivers, and 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

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.

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