The race is underway to get more truck drivers into seats before the U.S. economy accelerates even more during the second half of the year.
The national truck driver shortage is impacting a wide swath of industries, and the bulk and break-bulk markets are feeling the pinch. A problem that was already in effect pre-COVID has since become a major issue for suppliers, shippers, carriers, trucking companies, and pretty much any organization that relies on trucks to get products from point A to point B.
Retiring drivers, less-than-competitive pay rates, the pandemic itself, and the fact that many would-be drivers are gravitating to less demanding jobs are all wreaking havoc on the trucking industry’s ability to attract and retain drivers. With gross domestic product (GDP) in the U.S. expected to grow by 6.9% this year—it’s best showing since 1984—the race to fill driver seats is on.
According to the American Trucking Associations’ (ATA) most recent projection, the driver shortage will exceed 160,000 by 2028 if recent trends hold. The ATA’s last official report on the driver shortage was published in 2019, which means that number could actually be much higher now, in light of everything that’s happened since then.
Right now, for example, there are nine heavy and tractor trailer truck driving jobs for every potential new hire that’s out there, ready, willing, and able to drive. According to a recent study, nearly 57% of all truck drivers are over the age of 45 and 23% over 55, representing almost one-quarter of the current driver workforce reaching retirement age in the next decade.
Jeff Berman of Logistics Management says this doesn’t include the almost 8% of truckers currently over retirement age.
“The workforce composition suggests that young workers are not being recruited at rates that will replace current workers as they exit the market due to age or disability,” Berman points out, citing a recent industry report. “This issue is further compounded by a relative dearth of younger workers overall compared to the abundance of baby boomers. However you parse the debate about a current commercial driver shortage, we are certainly facing a near-term future long-haul driver shortage if current trends continue.”
A Critical Issue
With nearly 70% of all domestic freight moved across U.S. highways, the driver shortage is a critical issue right now. In total, an estimated 3.5 million truck drivers are operating in the U.S. Of that, one in nine are independent, the majority of which are owner operators. Without these critical workers, moving bulk and break bulk freight from origin to destination has become increasingly complex and less affordable.
“Anyone you talk to right now who is working in logistics is experiencing a lack of qualified truck drivers,” says a supply chain manager at a large chemicals manufacturer. “We were anticipating this for several years, and we knew that the workforce was aging. Then COVID hit and quite a few drivers took the opportunity to retire earlier than planned.”
In the past, the solution may have been to simply switch transportation modes until the challenge subsides. But in today’s fast-paced business world, moving from truck to rail isn’t as easy as it looks. “Many of our customers don’t even have the infrastructure for rail,” the supply chain manager points out. “And besides, the rail industry is pretty tight now too.”
Companies that rely on specialized equipment are in a particularly tight spot right now. Bulk tanker truck drivers, for instance, are in especially short supply. There are approximately 63,000 vacant truck-driving jobs in the bulk tanker market right now, one report states, and the global tanker trucks market will need 174,000 new truckers by 2026.
As carriers work to make driving jobs more attractive in an overall constrained labor market, and as companies use supply chain control towers and other advanced technology to make good freight decisions, some longer-term solutions to the dearth could also be in the works. For one, the driverless truck is coming into view. And, the use of delivery drones—often thought of more as a novelty than a reality on the commercial front—could also be stepped up in light of the current (and ongoing) driver shortage.
The chemicals supply chain manager calls the shortage a very fundamental problem rooted in the fact that there aren’t enough people who are willing and able to drive trucks. From deliveries by drone to self-driving trucks to highway automation, companies are looking for new ways to apply technology to a problem that’s not going away anytime soon.
Although the timing remains elusive, the advent of autonomous trucking is beginning to come into clearer focus,” Transport Topics points out in an article that paint a picture of a time when trucks may be able to drive themselves. “The ongoing collaboration among tech developers, fleets, shippers, and truck manufacturers will go a long way toward shaping this technology and how it ultimately will be deployed.”