The transportation industry was short some 80,000 drivers by the end of last year, according to American Trucking Associations (ATA) Chief Economist, Bob Costello. Already at an all-time high, Costello believes the shortage of truck drivers could reach 160,000 by 2030. His sentiments are echoed throughout the trucking industry.
It’s not just a problem for the transportation industry, though. Trucking alone is responsible for moving more than 70 percent of all freight in the United States, per ATA reports. The trucker shortage is impacting the overall cost of goods and has the potential to halt commerce in its tracks.
What is Causing the Truck Driver Shortage Issues?
More than half the shortage of drivers can be attributed to retirement, according to the National Transportation Institute (NTI). Its representatives say the average age of a commercial truck driver is 54, and new entrants are 38. The industry isn’t attracting younger drivers, which many attribute to a reputation issue with the industry. The scarcity of drivers entering the field simply isn’t enough to make up for those leaving and increased demand.
The root of the issue, however, isn’t as clear-cut. Some cite difficult or downright unsafe working conditions and low pay. Others point to the pandemic and note that training and licensing programs reduced capacity or shut down during the early months of COVID-19.
Still, some contend there isn’t actually a driver shortage. “We’ve seen that what economists would call a reallocation of drivers,” Jason Miller, associate professor of supply-chain management at Michigan State University, explained to Business Insider. He believes that truckers simply moved to smaller transportation companies, became owner-operators, or moved to short-haul.
Challenges Due to Driver Shortage
The majority of truck drivers are inching towards their fifties and find it hard to keep up with the growing demand. This predicament often culminates in a high turnover rate. When coupled with extended working hours, the trucking profession can venture into the realm of unsafe occupations due to the potential for exhaustion and fatigue-induced accidents.
The root of this truck driver shortage is multifaceted. The impending retirement of a substantial segment of the workforce is a significant contributor, and unfortunately, there’s a shortage of young drivers entering the profession to fill the impending vacuum. Further complicating matters, the trucking industry’s competitive nature often leads recruiters to prioritize hiring seasoned drivers, creating an entry barrier for those new to the field. Other obstacles that exacerbate the shortage include stringent regulatory and safety standards, the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a noticeable gender imbalance in the industry.
4 Ways the Transportation Industry is Addressing the Truck Driver Shortage
With so many causes and potential causes for the truck driver shortage, a multi-pronged approach is being used across the industry.
1. Improving Truck Driver Wages and Conditions
The median annual wage for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers was $45,260 in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Truck driver wages climbed to $47,130 in 2020, with many reports that drivers received raises three to five times last year.
But, pay is only one part of the equation. Drivers often spend weeks away from home jutting across the country. Restrictions on hours, set to combat fatigue behind the wheel, all-too-often leave truckers with the decision as to whether they want to stop at the nearest grimy rest stop simply because it has guaranteed overnight parking that will allow them to catch a few restless winks, or press forward to the next stop that may be nicer, but could leave them stranded on the shoulder overnight due to insufficient space.
To combat this, many companies are switching to a hub and spoke system. Similar to the way airlines work with connecting flights, the hub and spoke system has truckers following a single path from a home hub to one that may only be a few hundred miles away, allowing for more work/life balance and precious nights and weekends at home.
2. Introducing Apprenticeships and Lowering the Truck Driving Age Limit
Truckers 18 and up have historically been allowed to drive big rigs in most states, but federal law has prevented them from crossing state lines. However, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) recently established the Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program (SDAP) to help address this. Under the three-year program, those 18-20 with an intrastate commercial driver’s license will be able to cross state lines, provided they meet specific criteria, the FMCSA reports.
Many states, such as New York, are easing restrictions on younger drivers as well. The new legislation will allow those 18 and up the opportunity to earn a CDL Class A through a specialized training program, something once reserved for those ages 21 and older, ABC News reports.
These initiatives will make it easier for trucking firms to recruit younger drivers straight out of high school, but it could take years before they provide any real relief.
3. Diversification: More Women and Minorities in Trucking
Moving beyond age, the industry is working to improve diversity on the whole. Greater efforts are being made to recruit female truckers, who presently only account for 6.6 percent of truck drivers, and minorities, who comprise just over 40 percent of drivers per the ATA. Calls are also being made to attract other underrepresented groups, such as veterans. Others, like C.H. Robinson, believe the solution lies in attracting more immigrants to the profession, CNBC reports.
4. Leveraging Technology for the Trucking Industry
When the word “automation” creeps into discussions about the transportation industry, driverless trucks are the first thing that comes to mind. They may be part of the overall truck driver shortage solution as technology improves, but it overlooks one huge problem truckers face: driver detention. While there isn’t accurate or complete data as to how long drivers wait, particularly since it isn’t often tracked unless the length exceeds contractual obligations, around one in ten stops for loading and unloading exceeds two hours, and the average detention time is an additional 1.4 hours according to the FMCSA.
The agency’s big discovery is that crashes rise exponentially as detention time increases. However, its study notes that these delays result in net income reductions of up to $302.9 million annually, which amounts to more than $1,500 for a for-hire each year. It doesn’t even touch on reduced downtime or increased stress and expense.
Through automation and leveraging technology to optimize the shipping and receiving process, the transportation industry can reduce dwell and detention times significantly, thus making the field a safer, more hospitable place to be.
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