To no one’s surprise, the driver shortage topped the list of top trucking industry concerns this year in the annual survey by the American Transportation Research Institute, the research arm of the American Trucking Associations. ATA expects the truck driver shortage to climb to a record high of 80,000 drivers this year. If current trends continue, it predicts, that number may soar to 160,000 in less than 10 years.
I’ve heard this all before. The numbers may change, but the story stays the same.
Yes, there are a number of pandemic-related factors contributing to the current shortage, such as early retirements as well as closed driving schools and licensing offices. But like the supply chain issue we write about in our Newsmaker of the Year, the pandemic has just exacerbated and highlighted longtime structural problems.
Search for “driver shortage” on Truckinginfo.com and you’ll find a story from more than 20 years ago, “It’s Official: The Driver Shortage Threatens the Economy.” (That search also turns up 142 articles written by yours truly since I joined HDT in 1998.)
“The industry is raising pay at five times the historic average, but this isn’t just a pay issue,” ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello told reporters at ATA’s Management Conference and Exhibition.
After more than 30 years of talking to fleets and truck drivers, economists and retention experts, I believe the real issue is that driver compensation, even with all the recent pay raises, isn’t enough to make up for what the long-haul, over-the-road truck driving job entails.
I also believe the current driver shortage reflects the larger trend that has been called “The Great Resignation.” During the pandemic, a lot of people have taken a closer look at their lives, their jobs, at quality-of-life issues, and decided it was time for a career change.
Some truck drivers are addressing those quality-of-life issues by using those higher pay rates to work less and still make as much as they were earning previously. In an ATA MC&E panel discussion led by Costello, Shameek Konar, CEO of Pilot Flying J, said the company has raised wages close to 20%, but some drivers are pulling back their hours. “The average driver is working 50 to 60 hours a week and they don’t want those extra hours,” he said, saying it’s a quality of life issue. “We’re trying to figure out how to change the business model and the job. What are ways for us to innovate and create a job that is more accessible or more in demand?”
Costello said the industry needs to recruit more younger drivers, as well as more women. But to do that, we need to seriously look at what kind of job we’re trying to recruit them into.
In another ATA panel discussion, “Next Gen Perspective: Trucking’s Future is Now,” Lina Dejongh, terminal manager for Trimac Transportation, didn’t mince words when asked about the challenges panelists’ fleets were facing.
“I think we’re talking about things but not fixing it,” she said. “How do we make an industry attractive when you tell a candidate, ‘By the way, we don’t pay the first two hours sitting at a customer or demurrage at the other end, so there’s a risk you may not get paid for three or four hours out of the day’?”
And don’t forget, you likely won’t be allowed to use the restroom while you’re stuck waiting. Plus, with the truck stop industry also dealing with labor shortages, you might not be able to get a shower or a hot meal when you stop for the night. Not to mention 14-hour days and 70-hour weeks, unpredictable paychecks, time away from family, maybe even no paid time off — and the perception, at least, that many trucking companies view drivers as disposable.
“We need to truly reshape how we view drivers in our industry, treating them with more respect and like the true professionals that they are,” said Brandon Bibb, regional vice president of sales for U.S. Xpress, on that same panel.
And Amber Edmonson, president and CEO of Trailiner, said she’s heard a lot of complaints that people just don’t want to work anymore.
“I think we have to move past that kind of victim mentality,” she said, “and face these issues head-on and make ourselves employers of choice.”
This editorial commentary first appeared in the December 2021 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.