Drivers wanted – help alleviate freight disruption
April 6, 2023
As e-commerce continues to expand its market share, the trucking industry has become an important barometer of how well the industry can move products from Point A to Point B and everywhere in between. In this issue, we look at the truck driver shortage that has permeated the industry for many years – and the efforts underway to fill the demand and alleviate freight disruption.
As e-commerce continues to expand its market share, the trucking industry is a critical indicator of how well goods move across the country. In 2021, the trucking industry accounted for $875.5 billion in gross freight revenues annually, representing 80.8% of the nation’s total freight revenue, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and FreightWaves.
The most recent ATA research shows that the volume of U.S. freight increased sequentially for the three months ending February 2023, totaling 2.9% and reaching near the recent high set in September 2022. On a year-over-year basis, contract freight continues to hold up at high levels. ATA officials note that the inventory cycle is improving, which should lessen the freight volatility that has impacted the trucking industry over the past year.
One key headwind for this sector is the shortage of truck drivers, an issue that has plagued the industry for many years and was exacerbated by supply chain disruption and surging demand at the height of the pandemic. The driver shortage is being seen across all trucking sectors, but is most acute in the longer-haul for-hire truckload market, given the demanding work and reduced work-life balance.
According to the ATA and research by AVANT by Avison Young, the driver shortage reached approximately 80,000 in 2021, then dipped down a bit for 2022 and is currently estimated near 62,000. By 2031, the number is expected to jump to 160,000 as more drivers retire or leave the industry.
Refilling the jobs
The truck driver shortage is propelled by an aging driver demographic, dissatisfaction with the demands of long-haul driving, and other factors. As trucking companies look to fill current demand and prepare for the future, many have boosted pay, recruited from different demographic groups, and offered other incentives -- such as schedules that include shorter driving distances -- to attract and retain drivers.
The industry also increased its efforts to attract women, a demographic group that accounted for just 14% of professional truck drivers in 2022. That figure was an increase from 7.9% in 2018. According to CNN, the trucking industry is marketing to younger women and those who are changing careers as they try to increase the rate of female drivers, technicians and executives. During the pandemic, as demand for trucking increased, many female teachers, medical professionals and service workers switched to the growing trucking industry.
There also are efforts underway to recruit young workers. According to FreightWaves, truck driving schools across the country report the average new-entry age for truck drivers is 38, due to age limitations, lack of awareness of job opportunities and other factors. The Next Generation in Trucking organization was formed in 2021 to promote trucking as a positive career choice for the younger generation. The group provides educational resources, programs and employment connections, and works to secure grants and other resources to help recruit younger workers.
One example is an upcoming three-year pilot program that would train individuals aged 18 to 20 to help them explore trucking careers. The program could lead to reducing the minimum age for commercial drivers working across state lines, currently set at 21. There are concerns about increased safety risks with younger drivers and the possibility of higher insurance costs, however.
Infrastructure bill expected to impact production
Infrastructure issues are also disrupting the flow of freight and increasing the need for more drivers. The lack of truck parking spots, particularly in population growth markets, is causing drivers to stop driving earlier so they can secure a spot for the night. Congestion also limits drivers’ ability to safely and efficiently make deliveries.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill passed by Congress in 2021 is expected to improve conditions by repairing and rebuilding bridges, highways and tunnels across the country. ATA estimated that infrastructure bottlenecks amount to 1.2 billion hours of lost productivity annually for the trucking industry, the equivalent of 425,533 commercial truck drivers sitting idle for an entire year. The lost time and wasted fuel equate to $74.1 billion a year in added operational costs.
Potential new regulations could either improve or exacerbate the shortage. Laws that would lower the minimum age of eligibility for a commercial driver’s license would open the door to more drivers while those that lower the number of hours truckers can drive would result in more drivers being needed to haul the same amount of freight.
Despite pervasive volatility in freight volumes, the need to hire more truck drivers and recruit more into the industry for the long-term, the industry has demonstrated its resilience over the past several years, during an intense period of demand and transformation.
Sources: American Trucking Associations (ATA), Avison Young research, CNN