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Heavy Haul

The Truck Driver Shortage and What It Means for Shippers

There has been a truck driver shortage for about a decade, and it’s only getting worse. According to the American Trucking Association, the current shortage is around 80,000 drivers. By 2030, that number is projected to exceed 160,000. Truck driver demand is extremely high, as roughly 70% of all American freight is moved by truck. Clearly, this represents a significant problem for shippers. Let’s look at what’s behind this shortage of professional truck drivers and how shippers can help.

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Why is there a truck driver shortage?

When shippers hear that there aren’t enough truckers on the road, the first thing that comes to mind is often, “Why?” Truck driver shortage problems fall into several different categories, so there is no single answer to, “Why is there a shortage of truck drivers?” The reality is that preexisting problems were highlighted and worsened by the pandemic, so the shortage is not likely to go away as Covid-19 fades. Here are some of the biggest factors contributing to the trucker shortage.

Driver retention and attracting new talent

One of the biggest contributors to the trucker shortage is driver retention. Shockingly, annual truck driver turnover is upwards of 90%. That means that of every 10 new drivers, nine will no longer be on the road at the end of the first year. Some people are likely drawn to the industry by the promise of a good paycheck and the freedom of the open road, only to find that entry-level trucking is tough work that requires a lot of sacrifices.

Attracting new talent can also be challenging. Likely due to liability concerns, many trucking companies will only hire drivers who already have a commercial driver’s license and some experience. It is true that other carriers are willing to train new drivers, but “working off the debt” by pledging to remain with that carrier for a period of time can be daunting for many people.

Driver demographics

As a whole, truck drivers are getting older, with an average age of over 50. It’s tough to attract younger drivers into the trucking industry who are often more concerned with work-life balance and may have young families they don’t want to leave for days on end. In addition, the minimum age to hold a CDL license is 21. After leaving high school, many potential drivers find their way to other jobs during that three- to four-year gap.

Another challenge for the industry is attracting women. While they make up nearly 50% of the overall workforce, women account for less than 10% of commercial truck drivers.

Driving time regulations and fines

The trucking industry is heavily regulated, primarily to promote safety. But these regulations can sometimes pose a challenge for truckers. This is due to the nature of the pay structure. Drivers are typically paid by the mile instead of receiving hourly wages. So when they run into inevitable delays, such as traffic jams or severe weather, they spend a lot of time getting nowhere and aren’t compensated for it.

Yet hours of service (HOS) regulations stipulate how many hours drivers can log in a day and when they must take mandatory rest breaks. So they can’t simply push on to make up mileage lost during a delay. They can also be fined for a long list of infractions, which takes even more money out of their paychecks. For some drivers, it’s simply not worth the hassle.

Truck driver quality of life

Despite the job’s attractive freedoms, many truckers are surprised to discover just how tough working conditions on the road can be. Hours of Service, HOS, regulations ensure that truckers get adequate rest, but sleep deprivation is a common issue among truck drivers. Sleeping in a truck isn’t always comfortable, and it can be difficult to adapt to showering at rest areas. Dining options are limited to whatever the driver can heat up in whatever small space they’ve designated as a kitchenette or truck stops and restaurants with a parking lot large enough for the truck. Health problems ranging from back issues to diabetes are more likely when spending hours every day behind the wheel. And, of course, there are always the safety concerns that arise from sleeping at rest stops and spending days on end in heavy traffic.

In addition, new drivers often get the least desirable routes. They’re likely to be away from their families and friends for many days at a time, logging long hours while making the trips that drivers with seniority don’t want. It can be a huge adaptation, and many people find that they aren’t suited for a trucker’s life.

Flatbed strap being tightened.

Industry inefficiency

The trucking industry is riddled with inefficiencies. Ports are incredibly congested, with long lines of drivers waiting to pick up or drop off containers. Computer systems are often outdated and full of glitches. Routes may not make the best use of existing driver resources. Even the weather can bring the industry to its knees, with drivers stuck for hours due to predicted snowstorms or heavy rain. Bringing the industry into the 21st century with route optimization, automation, and predictive analysis could go a long way toward fixing these inefficiencies. But for now, they can be enough to push some drivers out of the industry.

Low truck driver wages

The trucking industry tends to lure new drivers with promises of high pay. Often those numbers are more in line with what highly experienced drivers can expect when everything goes perfectly. But truck driver pay rarely works out that way, especially early in a trucker’s career. In the early years of a trucking career, being paid by the mile on routes that other drivers don’t want, it can be tough for truck drivers to earn a decent living.

Unpaid work

Most new truck drivers don’t realize how much of their work will be unpaid. Since trucking typically pays per mile, time spent doing anything other than driving is typically uncompensated. Not only does this include time stuck in traffic, but also time spent waiting to drop off or pick up loads. Several hours of the day could wind up unpaid, making it much harder than it seems to earn a reasonable paycheck.

Driver wearing a TRuckstop.com hat in seat.

Impact of Covid-19

While the truck driver shortage started long before the pandemic, there is no question that the pandemic made it significantly worse. Part of this is due to the overall labor shortage. Companies of every size and type, across all industries, are struggling to fill open positions. The trucking industry certainly isn’t immune to this issue.

But Covid-19 also put unique pressures on the trucking industry, making it harder to hire. There were plenty of horror stories about supply chain logjams leading to drivers getting backed up at ports for hours or even days on end for more than two years. In addition, during the lockdowns, it was nearly impossible for truck drivers to find open restaurants, showers, or even toilet facilities. Combined with the risks of visiting different facilities in different states regularly, these conditions drove many truckers out of the industry. They dissuaded potential new drivers from getting started. While these issues are starting to ease, the freshness of the memories may be making it even more difficult to recruit and retain drivers.

High-risk work conditions

Being a trucker comes with significant risks that can prevent potential new drivers from entering the industry. These include:

  • Traffic accidents
  • Ergonomic injuries, such as back problems from sitting and repetitive use injuries in the arms and hands
  • Equipment dangers from performing truck maintenance or loading and unloading heavy freight
  • Lifestyle diseases, such as diabetes, malnutrition, or even mental health issues due to loneliness and stress

How can shippers help solve the truck driver shortage?

At first glance, it may seem that the truck driver shortage is a carrier problem rather than a shipper problem. But in truth, about half of all truck fleets are privately owned by shippers. In addition, everyone in the supply chain has a role to play in keeping trucks moving. Here are a few steps you can take.

  • Increase driver pay. The laws of supply and demand indicate that when there is a shortage, prices must rise. In this case, the price is trucker wages. Higher pay could help to attract and retain more truck drivers.
  • Increase freight rates. The freight rate is the overall cost of shipping an item from Point A to Point B. When freight rates are higher, more money is available to raise driver pay without sacrificing profits.
  • Reduce time on the road. Adding distribution centers, going to a hub and spoke model of distribution, and using predictive analysis to determine shipping times can help reduce the amount of time each driver must spend on the road. Increased home time can help improve work-life balance and make it easier to retain drivers.
  • Use LTL shipping. LTL, or less than truckload, shipping is a win-win for everyone. It allows drivers to consolidate multiple loads into a single run, reducing downtime and keeping their trucks moving. It is also beneficial for shippers, as it’s generally the most cost-effective way to move small shipments.

Find drivers and ship freight faster with Rate Insights.

The truck driver shortage continues to cause challenges throughout the industry, but shippers can take proactive steps to reduce its impact. The Truckstop Shipper Load Board lets you search thousands of fully vetted truckers ready to move your goods. And our Rate Insights tool helps you make decisions on how to price your freight with the best rate based on real-time and recent historical data. Request a demo for more information today.

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