The American Trucking Associations released a new report on the shortage of truckers in the U.S., saying that the industry needed 60,800 more drivers at the end of 2018 to meet the country’s demands for freight services.
“Over the past 15 years, we’ve watched the shortage rise and fall with economic trends, but it ballooned last year to the highest level we’ve seen to date,” said Bob Costello, the trade group’s chief economist.
Costello warned that the chronic shortage will ripple across the economy. The trucking industry moves more than $700 billion of goods annually.
“The combination of a surging freight economy and carriers’ need for qualified drivers could severely disrupt the supply chain,” he said.
SHORTAGE KEEPS GROWING
Costello said the driver shortfall could grow to 100,000 in five years and 160,000 drivers in 2028. Most of the shortage is for long-haul truckers.
One problem is that drivers are aging out.
The average age of an over-the-road driver is 46 years old. New drivers also are old for new-career entrants. The average age of a new driver being trained is 35 years old. Costello called that “alarming.”
“The trucking industry needs to find ways to attract more and younger drivers,” Costello said.
The report estimated that the trucking industry will need to hire 1.1 million new drivers over the next decade. That’s an average of 110,000 per year to replace retiring drivers and keep up with growth in the economy.
“Whether by removing barriers for younger drivers to begin careers as drivers, attracting more demographic diversity into the industry, or easing the transition for veterans, we need to do more to recruit and retain drivers,” Costello said.
The trade group wants to allow long-haul truckers to start as early as age 18. It also wants to recruit more military veterans to the industry.
Solutions include increasing pay. But the industry must also address the negative lifestyle factors that discourage people from going into trucking. It needs to give drivers more time at home. And it should improve conditions on the job, like reducing wait times at shipper facilities, Costello said.
Wait time, or detention time, robs U.S. truckers of an estimated $1.1 billion to $1.3 billion in income annually, according to an audit by the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General.
While motor carriers and other truck operators say they are having trouble attracting drivers, others say the industry isn’t working hard enough to recruit truckers.
The three biggest deterrents are money, home time and lifestyle, said Steve Viscelli, a trucking expert and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The ‘shortage’ is the result of decades of subpar pay for the incredible hours workers are required to put in,” Viscelli said. “Drivers need to be paid for all the time required to do the job, or carriers will compete on how much work they don’t pay their drivers for.”
Some companies see the use of automation as one way to alleviate the shortage.
“There is not now, nor has there ever been, a truck driver shortage,” said Desiree Ann Wood, a trucker and president of Real Women in Trucking Inc.
Wood said there is a shortage of carriers willing to pay enough to attract drivers “and improve the workplace culture to retain them.”
“The ATA puts out these media blitz campaigns to claim there is a critical truck driver shortage, which in turn is a call for more student truck drivers who are poorly trained (and) work very cheap,” Wood said.
Peloton Technology is developing technology that allows teams of human and robotic driven trucks to lower costs and improve efficiency in the freight industry.
The Mountain View, Calif., startup is developing a platooning system in which a fully loaded heavy-duty truck operated by a driver is linked to an automated truck.
Platooning is an emerging vehicle technology. It allows digitally tethered convoys of two or more trucks to travel closely together to reduce drag and increase fuel efficiency.
The strategy could speed deployment of automated trucks, improve fuel economy and address a chronic shortage of truckers.
“Many situations that would be challenging for a driverless truck can be easily handled when you have a human-driven truck in the lead. Construction zones, adjusting to sudden changes in weather, reacting to traffic control, identifying erratic or drunk drivers – these are all things that are straightforward with a human in the lead truck,” Josh Switkes, Peloton’s chief executive, told Trucks.com
Another truck-technology startup, Starsky Robotics, is developing a system that would use a remote driver to navigate a self-driving truck through thorny traffic and road conditions. In June, the company ran its first test on public roads of a fully autonomous truck without a human in the vehicle. The San Francisco company drove a heavy-duty commercial truck without a driver for 9.4 miles along a highway in Florida.
Freeing a driver from the cab would allow fleets to expand their operations without hiring additional drivers.