ATA estimates that over the next decade, nearly 1,000,000 new drivers will have to be recruited...

ATA estimates that over the next decade, nearly 1,000,000 new drivers will have to be recruited to replace drivers leaving the industry.

File Photo: Cargo Transporters

The American Trucking Associations estimates that in 2021 the truck driver shortage will climb to a record high of just over 80,000 drivers. What’s more, if current trends continue, that number may soar to 160,000 in less than ten years.

“Since we last released an estimate of the shortage, there has been tremendous pressure on the driver pool,” said ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello, speaking at an Oct. 25 media briefing in Nashville during ATA’s annual meeting.

Costello said the 80,000 figure is the difference between the number of drivers currently in the market and the optimal number of drivers needed based on freight demand. He said that the difference stood at just 61,000 in 2018, adding that “it fell a bit in 2019, then fell again in 2020 before it shot up in 2021.

“A thing to note is that before the pandemic, even though we had a shortage, more people were entering the industry,” he said. “The issue is that new entrants into the industry didn’t keep up with demand for goods.”

Costello added that “increased demand for freight, pandemic-related challenges from early retirements, closed driving schools and DMVs, and other pressures are really pushing up demand for drivers and subsequently the shortage.

The first time ATA took a “snapshot” of the shortage was in 2005. He said that at that time, economists who worked up the numbers told ATA that “unique items” affected the shortage that went beyond pushing up pay.

Not Just Pay

“The industry is raising pay at five times the historic average, but this isn’t just a pay issue,” Costello said. “Trucking has a demographic problem,” an aging workforce that is overwhelmingly male.

“Aging drivers and younger drivers going elsewhere [not content to wait until they’re old enough to drive interstate] brings the average age for truckers overall to 35.” He said that by segment, for-hire truckload fleets will have an average age in their ‘40s and for-hire LTL fleets an average in their ‘50s.

More younger drivers coming into trucking would help, of course, but Costello also contended that fleets should not overlook recruiting more women. “Females are just over 7% of drivers now— despite being half of the population.” He added that some fleets are ahead on this, with women making up 25% of their driver force.

Noting that the shortage is “most acute” for long-haul (non-local) for-hire fleets, he emphasized that “there is no single cause of the driver shortage,” listing these as the primary factors:

  • High average age of current drivers, which leads to a high number of retirements
  • Women making up only 7% of all drivers, well below their representation in the total workforce
  • Inability of some would-be and current drivers to pass a drug test, a problem exacerbated by an increasing number of states legalizing marijuana (still banned federally)
  • Federally mandated minimum age of 21 to drive commercially across state lines poses a significant challenge to recruiting new drivers
  • Pandemic caused some drivers to leave the industry, plus truck driver training schools trained far fewer drivers than normal in 2020
  • Lifestyle issues, notably time away from home, especially in the longer-haul market
  • Infrastructure and other issues, such as a lack of truck parking spots, which causes drivers to stop driving earlier than they need to so they can get a spot for the night, and congestion that limits drivers’ ability to safely and efficiently make deliveries
  • Barriers to entry, like the inability of potential candidates to meet carriers’ hiring standards for driving record or criminal histories

Costello warned that based on driver demographic trends, including gender and age, as well as expected freight growth, the driver shortage could surpass 160,000 in 2030.

A Big Number

If 80,000 or 160,000 is a tough figure to absorb, Costello spoke of another, much more substantial number: One million. “To keep up with demand over the next decade, trucking will need to recruit nearly one million new drivers to close the gap caused by demand for freight, projected retirements, and other issues.”

ATA estimates that over the next decade, nearly 1,000,000 new drivers will have to be recruited to replace retiring drivers, drivers that leave voluntarily (e.g., for lifestyle reasons) or involuntarily (e.g., for driving records or failed drug tests), as well as additional drivers needed for industry growth.

Costello said that “because are a number of factors driving the shortage, we have to take a number of different approaches.” Among these are efforts by carriers to do “more and more to address some of the structural lifestyle issues that have traditionally been a challenge for truck drivers.”

He also spoke of the potential positive impact of reaching out to women and minorities, which “will open this career path – one of the few with a path to a middle-class lifestyle that doesn’t require a college degree— to them.”

Costello contended that higher pay rates alone will not solve the shortage because some drivers will choose to work less at a higher pay rate, negating the impact of the increase. “The solution to the driver shortage will most certainly require increased pay, regulatory changes and modifications to shipper, receiver and carrier business practices to improve conditions for drivers,” he pointed out.

He said that “shippers can help themselves by turning drivers over faster. With less waiting time, existing drivers can haul more freight. You increase effective capacity without adding one truck.”

Costello noted that turnover is also an issue. “It’s still quite high and most of it is churning, due to fleet aggressively going out and poaching from each other.

Younger Drivers

Costello also spotlighted “finding ways to let younger people enter the industry,” which is the intent of the Drive-SAFE Act that’s wending its way across Capitol Hill for several years. That bill’s focus is to allow certified commercial truck drivers under age 21 to operate trucks across state lines after completing specified safety training and apprenticeship opportunities.

 Asked what impact the Drive-SAFE Act can have, Costello told HDT that with its provisions in place, “we can show that with the right training, the right safety technology, and by taking an apprenticeship-type approach” that enabling younger drivers to drive interstate can work.

He added that the military was the model for the Drive-SAFE Act’s approach. “They have 18- to 21-year-olds driving tanks and flying planes. Why not transfer that capability to trucking? It won’t solve [the shortage] but will be a factor in reducing it.”

About the author
David Cullen

David Cullen

[Former] Business/Washington Contributing Editor

David Cullen comments on the positive and negative factors impacting trucking – from the latest government regulations and policy initiatives coming out of Washington DC to the array of business and societal pressures that also determine what truck-fleet managers must do to ensure their operations keep on driving ahead.

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