Driver shortage tops ATRI list again, remains issue for Arkansas carriers

by Jeff Della Rosa (JDellaRosa@nwabj.com) 409 views 

The driver shortage remains the top issue for the trucking industry for the third consecutive year in the United States, according to a recent survey. In Arkansas, it is still a top issue for carriers, said Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association.

The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) recently released the top 10 issues the industry faces, and the driver shortage was No. 1 on the list again. ATRI is the nonprofit research organization of American Trucking Associations.

Newton explained a shortage can either mean that there aren’t enough people able to drive or a lack of qualified drivers. In Arkansas, the latter is the case, with a qualified driver shortage, even as freight demand softened in 2019 after a strong 2018, when carriers took advantage of the economic conditions by adding trucks and drivers.

“The lack of that economic demand in 2019, I think it makes it feel as though the shortage is not as bad, but I think that just coincides with the lack of urgency or eagerness on the part of the carriers to grow,” Newton said.  “Some of our member carriers would say, ‘There’s not a shortage of individuals applying for driving jobs. There’s a shortage of individuals that are qualified for the driving jobs that we have.’”

The shortage in the state is about 1,500 drivers, based on nearly 3.5 million drivers nationwide and about 87,000 drivers in Arkansas, Newton said. Nationwide, the shortage is estimated at 60,000 drivers, and 2% of that would be about 1,500 drivers.

“I’m comfortable with that number,” she said. “It may be a little bit more than that just because the per capita employment in trucking here is greater than it is in some other parts of the country. But I think somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 is probably a safe number as far as jobs that could be filled if we had the right candidates for them.”

“Qualified drivers are what as an industry that we need, but that’s kind of part of a bigger problem,” she added. “Are the right people considering entering our industry? And that’s where you start looking at kind of the bigger problems when you say the driver shortage. You start talking about women or minorities or young people. If we could tap into any of those portions of the labor pool, perhaps the quality of the candidates could improve. Are we attracting the right types of people? Is the pool that we are pulling from large enough?”

Newton also noted the driver turnover, or churn, can lead to a carrier hiring a driver but another carrier losing one. “The real solution is having additional individuals enter the industry that are not currently,” she said.

Some of the ways the industry has worked to ease the driver shortage have included pay increases and improving the work environment for drivers, Newton said. She attended the panel discussion during which the top industry issues were released, and she explained that a driver for America’s Road Team talked about pay increases but also discussed the importance of how drivers are treated and valued by his employer and community.

“Those elements of pride that we have attempted to instill back into the profession of driving, and then the carriers and their driver managers and the shippers all being cognizant of that. I do think 2018 helped in the fact that shippers were left in a lurch looking for carriers and trying to be more mindful of things that they could do and how they talked about drivers and how respectful they were of the drivers’ time. It was a shift. We’re not where we need to be, but the profession of the driver and the experience of day-to-day respect and value has improved over the last 12 months.”

Shannon Newton

If the trend in the driver shortage continues, the United States could be short more than 160,000 drivers by 2028, according to a recent report by the American Trucking Associations.

With regard to ATRI’s list of top industry issues, hours-of-service was No. 2, driver compensation was No. 3, and driver detention at customer facilities was No. 4. The lack of available truck parking was the No. 5 issue. This is the 15th year ATRI has released the list, which was based on a survey of more than 2,000 carriers and drivers.

“While 2018 was an incredible year for trucking, we’ve seen some challenges in 2019 and certainly finding and retaining qualified drivers remains at the top of the list for our industry,” said Barry Pottle, chairman of the American Trucking Associations and CEO of Pottle’s Transportation. “ATRI’s analysis reveals the interconnectedness of these top issues and provides a roadmap for how motor carriers and professional drivers believe we should move forward as an industry.”

The Kansas City, Mo.-based trade group Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) responded to the results of ATRI’s list by telling carriers that they should pay drivers in order to recruit and retain them. OOIDA noted that ATRI also released a list that focuses on driver’s top issues and pay was No. 1.

“The real problem is carriers aren’t taking the necessary steps to keep their drivers,” said Lewie Pugh, vice president of OOIDA. “This fact is demonstrated in other ongoing research and the high ranking of retention in this latest survey.”

The driver shortage is more of high turnover problem in the truckload sector, according to OOIDA.

“There is a pretty simple solution to everything and that is to pay drivers for their time,” Pugh added. “We think it’s rather hypocritical for big trucking to keep saying there is a shortage when, according to the survey, the top concern of drivers isn’t even on their radar.”

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