On the Road

Square Pegs, Round Holes: Trucking & Demographics

The study of demographics is the key to solving the driver shortage. That means more than counting down to the day when the last driver is hired.

February 4, 2015

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Demographics gives us clues about why younger people do not want to become truck drivers. We can learn from those clues. Photo by Jim Park
Demographics gives us clues about why younger people do not want to become truck drivers. We can learn from those clues. Photo by Jim Park

I've been stewing about this for nearly two months, so it's time I got it off my chest. In early December, the American Transportation Research Institute released a white paper called "Analysis of Truck Driver Age Demographics Across Two Decades." While I respect ATRI and value much of its past work, this paper tells us what we already know while offering almost no insight on what we might do with the information – or I should say, what we might have done with the information if we had it back when we needed it.

Sorry if that sounds harsh, but the study of demographics can take you much further than simply plotting peoples' ages on a graph. Demographics opens windows into the lives of those lifeless data points and enables observers to draw conclusions that, in this case, could have been the key to understanding and maybe mitigating our driver shortage. We're well into the driver shortage now, right up to the handle. But the situation needn't have turned out the way it did, had we responded to demographic cues that were obvious as far back as the mid-1990s that even then were inexorably working against trucking.

There is nothing this industry could have done to prevent the societal changes that caused people to turn their backs on trucking – except to adapt to them.  

Nearly 20 years ago I attended my first trucking association convention. One of the featured speakers that year was David K. Foot, an economics professor at the University of Toronto, and one of the frontliners in the science of demographics – the study of human populations.

Back then, he made it abundantly clear that the driver shortage as we knew it in the mid-'90s was nothing compared to what we'd face a couple of decades hence -- that is, today. Sure enough, he was correct. The driver shortage then was just a puff of smoke on the horizon. Today, we could say the torpedoes are in the water.

What bothers me is the situation today might not have been so dire had we taken action back then.

MORE THAN JUST NUMBERS

As for demographics, the science, the description above doesn't really do the discipline justice. Yes, it's the study of human populations, but it's the conclusions you can draw from your data that make it so compelling.

In his book "Boom, Bust & Echo" (I have the original edition, published in 1996), Foot describes how understanding a generation can make it easy to predict what people in that group will be doing at some point in the future. By following natural aging progressions and studying their preferences and habits as they age, along with societal pressures and any contributing factors that make a particular generation unique to the others, Foot says you can make accurate predictions of the group's future activities, such as when they will buy a house, when their kids will go to public school and then to college, and even what types of jobs they will want -- and why certain jobs just won't appeal to them.

Commonly, they are grouped into cohorts we have come to call The Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y, Millennials, etc., and there are even established sub-groups. Each occupied a place in time as they aged, turning from teenagers to adults and following predictable patterns as previous generations did.

But taking it a step or two further, we can discover what makes a generation unique and what gives that group their likes and dislikes, trends, habits, preferences as well as what external factors affected that group in some way differently from a previous generation.

I won't go into an exhaustive study of demographics here. Buy the book, or one of many others on the topic; they are fascinating reading. I will, though, share a couple of examples to illustrate my point that had we noticed it coming, the impact of the driver shortage might not have been so severe.

I'll use an example from the book; it's Canadian but the situation was similar in the U.S. Back in 1957, the Canadian birth rate was 479,000 from a population of about 17.5 million. Thirty-three years later, in 1990, Canada's population grew by 406,000 out of a population of 27.7 million. That's far fewer children born to a larger population. Consider the impact that had on municipal infrastructure. Parks, playgrounds, schools, sports facilities that were built to accommodate the age 5 to 15 Baby Boom generation sat empty and largely unused by their children. There just weren't many kids around to use them. Schools were closed and turned into strip malls, parks turned into parking lots, etc.

The U.S. Census Bureau shows that while the population didn't quite double between 1957 and 2013, its growth rate through birth has been steadily declining on average. In 1957, for example, the rate of growth per 1000 population was 15.8 persons. In 1990, it was 8.1 and in 2013 it had dropped to 4.1.

As our traditional workforce ages, they will become less productive as they reach the slowing-down point in life. Photo by Jim Park.
As our traditional workforce ages, they will become less productive as they reach the slowing-down point in life. Photo by Jim Park.
Since there were fewer kids born in 1990, there are necessarily fewer adults who would now be around 25 years of age. Guess what? All sorts of occupations are experiencing labor shortages because there are simply fewer people at the age when they'd be wrapping up post secondary education and beginning their careers. Trucking isn't the only occupation feeling the pinch.

However, within the timeframe between the end of World War II and the birth of today's 25-year-olds, society pretty well turned itself upside down, or inside out. Everything from morals to work ethics changed. Career expectations changed and what we did with our time off changed. The cars we drove changed. What we watched on TV changed – and that's more significant that you might think.

Some experts in this field say the age of instant gratification (I want it all and I want it now) was born as we kiddies sat and watched our Saturday morning cartoons. All we had to do was whine and stamp our feet and a new Barbie or G.I. Joe showed up. Our parents, often with both mom and dad working, were in a big hurry to keep us happy and quiet. The offshoot of that, of course is that fewer people are content to "put in time" to get where they want to be. That has implications for personal debt as well as career planning.

Later, the education system began to change, as parents of post-war working class families vowed their kids would have a better chance in life than they did. Rather than see their kids wind up in machine shops and on construction sites – or driving trucks – kids were pushed into an increasingly academic stream in schools. The notion of working with one's hands somehow had become a non-starter.

You can drill down at any point in time and see how the changes that were going on then would affect the coming generations. It's astonishingly simple and straightforward, and for those with an eye on such things, predicting the future wasn't that complicated.

Had trucking been watching those emerging trends more closely 20 years ago, we might have predicted the shift away from blue-collar type jobs like trucking. We certainly would have seen the droop in population growth.

It would not have been difficult 20 years ago to observe the difference in something as basic as the work ethic between our parents' generation and our kids. It's profound, and it really does impact they way younger people see trucking. The post-WWII folks and the early Boomers were the get-'er-done types that took pride in accomplishing their goals at almost any cost. For better or worse, the way we do trucking today was built upon that work ethic. Younger generations don't share those same values and apparently aren't interested in a job that demand so much of workers.

Armed with that knowledge, we might have begun 10 years ago to reduce the lifestyle costs of over-the-road driving, or tailored the job to suit the next generation's work ethic.

As well, because of the demographic shifts, we might have been able to convince regulators to lower the minimum age for holding a CDL and working in interstate trucking. We might have been able to make a convincing case for maintaining vocational streams in schools, or developed trade and apprenticeship programs to nurture and train future diesel technicians and drivers.

During all the years when something might have been done, we were busy racing each other to the bottom.

The situation we find ourselves in today was predictable. During all the years when something might have been done (I'm not suggesting it would have been completely successful), we were busy racing each other to the bottom, slashing rates, not paying people for the work they did, cutting benefits and pension plans, and generally assuming that the supply of labor was unassailable.

If there's any "good news" here, it's that many in the current workforce simply cannot afford to retire on a typical schedule. Many of them will be around for years to come.

This industry made very little investment in its future workforce, and successive regulatory regimes have made it increasingly difficult to train and retain the few people who actually do want to become truck drivers.

SO WHAT DO WE DO NOW?

One of the things trucking could be doing now, rather than counting down the dwindling supply of truck drivers -- sort of a doomsday countdown to the day we eventually run out of candidates -- would be to study how trucking could be made to appeal to people of these different generations. Demographers like Foot and others have studied and cataloged their likes and dislikes, preferences, morals, taste in music, shopping preferences, etc. They know to a pretty fine point what makes people tick and how to create appealing situations that will attract their money. What's to say we can't create an appealing work environment for those people?

If not that, then now would be a great time to start planning for the next 20 years. And it's going to be altogether different again.

Trucking doesn't yet cater to ethnic driver populations. Photo by Jim Park
Trucking doesn't yet cater to ethnic driver populations. Photo by Jim Park
The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2050, 62% of the nation's children are expected to be of a minority ethnicity, up from 44% today. Approximately 39% are projected to be Hispanic or Latino (up from 22% in 2008). That growth in the ethnic population will drive even more change in what future generations demand from their careers, so trucking could be looking forward to the day when the complexion of the trucking industry is brown rather than white.

We might need to add English as a Second Language courses to the entry level driver training curriculum, or push to change the DOT's English language proficiency requirements. In 2013, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration noted that "Non-English Speaking Driver" (391.11B2) was the third most common driver violation in roadside inspections with almost 88,000 citations issued.

That's a pretty significant barrier to entry for a sizable -- and growing -- chunk of the U.S. population.

I wrote a research paper on this very subject in 2002 called "The Changing Face of Trucking." It was presented to and published by The Canadian Transportation Research Forum. In the paper, I suggested industry's chief difficulty was it was running out of square pegs to try to stuff into its round holes.

"Can trucking continue to simply search for new pools of talent, or will trucking have to adapt to the needs and preferences of the existing pool? My assertion is that trucking will have to become more flexible in meeting the needs of the next generation of driver, rather than trying to find more individuals to fit the job. The industry wastes a lot of time and money searching for square pegs in a box full of round ones. They just aren’t out there anymore. Maybe the shape of the hole needs to change instead."

That was 2002. Not much has changed.

Comments

  1. 1. robbdogg [ February 05, 2015 @ 06:50AM ]

    Don't over think it my friend. If America wants it's commerce ran like a Chinese sweat shop then that's what you get. Pay the drivers what they are worth! Our children see us gone for weeks at a time and mom is still worried about the bills. Why would the next generation want to step into that?

  2. 2. Dude Love [ February 05, 2015 @ 08:51AM ]

    It's all about money or lack thereof. I love reading these articles where everything but dismal wages is addressed no newbie should be working for less than .50 mile and experienced drivers should be getting a heck of a lot more. I find it funny that jobs/companies that pay well never have a lack of prospects, yet low wage crappy jobs/companies are always complaining about a shortage.

  3. 3. carl [ February 05, 2015 @ 10:47AM ]

    We are not under the fair labor laws
    We are designated as unskilled labor
    We have to work 70-100 hours a week yes if you logged all your time. I should be able to make my salary working 40 hrs and get paid time and a half
    Detention time what a joke the first 2 hrs is free that comes off my 14 hrs with no compensation
    The real reason there is a truck driver shortage is I'm a 3rd generation driver I couldn't wait for my turn because trucking was good back then now to many dumb rules and regulations that work against the driver I am way more tired under the 14hr rule then the 10 and 8 rule my sons won't be truck drivers I won't allow it there going to college there not going to live in a truck for 3 weeks at a time and get home for 3 days a month and give up there whole life local and Reginal doesn't pay enough I won't recommend to anybody to become a truck driver.

  4. 4. Rex [ February 05, 2015 @ 07:34PM ]

    The problem is the trucking industry most truckers are over weight eat truck stop foods sugared drinks and set for ten or more hours a day that kind of living is hard on your life span most younger people interested in trucking stop by a truck stop and see these guys and how beat up some of them look and then talk to them and find out that now a days you don't make the realy big bucks your on the road at least 30 days at a time with maybe five off at home hell if you have kids that's no were the amount of time to even know who they realy are all said I think the younger people need more bang for the buck

 

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Author Bio

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Jim Park

Equipment Editor

Truck journalist 13 years, commercial driver 20 years. Joined us in 2007. Specializes in technical/equipment material (including Tire Report), brings real-world perspective to test drives.

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