Truck driver shortage increases to 80,000; nearly 1 million new drivers needed over next decade

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 1,525 views 

The driver shortage has risen to a record high of 80,000 amid traditional demographics challenges and issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA).

“This is an over-the-road, for-hire truckload problem,” said ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello. Private and less-than-truckload fleets are facing hiring issues, but the shortage largely comprises long-haul or over-the-road drivers.

He said the shortage is determined based on the amount of available freight and the number of drivers needed to haul that. During the Great Recession, he noted a significant decline in freight demand led to a driver surplus.

The shortage is up from 61,000 in 2018, he said. However, the driver shortage declined in 2019 and before COVID in 2020 as freight demand softened.

He said the industry is attracting new drivers but not enough. By 2030, the shortage could rise to 160,000 at existing trends. This projection is based on Census data and population projections and from where existing drivers are being recruited.

He explained this as a warning to the entire supply chain that if things don’t change, the existing challenges the supply chain is experiencing could be caused solely because of the driver shortage.

The industry needs to attract about 1 million new drivers over the next 10 years, he said. Driver retirements account for the majority of the need. Other reasons include those who leave the industry early, failed drug tests and industry growth.

“We have a demographics problem,” Costello said. “We have a high average age…You have to be at least 21 years old to drive interstate freight, but the problem is most people don’t wait around until they’re 21. So they go get another career.”

Costello noted the average age is 35 for those seeking driver training, according to truck driving schools.

The over-the-road drivers are likely to be the youngest, with an average age in the upper 40s. The average age is more than 50 years old for drivers of private and less-than-truckload fleets, Costello said.

He also highlighted that women comprise 47% of the workforce but less than 8% of drivers. He said some fleets are doing well recruiting women, and they comprise about 20-25% of their drivers. Generally, he said, the fleets that are more successful at recruiting women are not using the same recruitment strategies as with men. He noted the fleets talk to women differently and about life on the road.

He said the previous demographics issues were challenges in 2005 and remain so in 2021.

The pandemic added to the existing issues, and driver training schools couldn’t train as many drivers last year. Costello said enrollment was down between 40% and 60% at schools.

“That was a hole we sort of got dug into because we didn’t train enough drivers last year that makes the shortage even larger,” he said.

He also noted that the Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse, which the ATA supports, includes about 70,000 drivers who are prohibited from driving.

“The vast majority of them aren’t even attempting the return to duty process,” he added.

Infrastructure issues also impact the shortage, he said, with drivers sitting in traffic in congested areas and the lack of available parking for them. He said drivers stop driving early for the night if they can find a parking spot. But if drivers knew they could drive for another two hours per day, he wondered how many more loads they could haul in a year.

Costello said the shortage won’t be resolved with a single solution, but anytime demand exceeds supply, price increases. This is not unique to the driver market, he said. Average weekly pay for long-haul drivers has risen five times the historical average, but employment is flat from spring 2020.

Pay alone won’t solve the problem, he said. Some drivers want to be home more often. He explained lifestyle is becoming a bigger issue for drivers and cited that employment is up for local drivers of truckload and less-than-truckload fleets.

Another solution he noted included the Drive Safe Act that would allow younger drivers to haul interstate freight after completing an apprenticeship program and have their trucks equipped with safety technology to mitigate crashes and record video of events.

Asked about encouraging younger drivers to try intrastate driving until they are 21, Costello noted the freight stream includes more interstate volumes and the more intrastate routes are in urban areas that are more difficult jobs, requiring more experience. He said younger drivers are encouraged to build their experience on the open road, which would tend to be more long-haul trucking jobs.

He added that the truck driver market also is being affected by the surge in e-commerce freight as the number of van drivers rises. He said they can supplement their income as Uber drivers and still be home each night.

“I will always … not understand how anybody can say there’s not a shortage,” Costello said. “It is talked at any fleet practically — they’ll tell you. I don’t quite understand that.”

In September, the ATA’s advanced seasonally adjusted For-Hire Truck Tonnage Index rose 2.4%, from August. The index also increased 1.7% from September 2020. Between January and September, the index is flat from the same period in 2020.

“September’s sequential gain was the largest in 2021,” Costello said. “It is good that tonnage rose in September, but it is important to note that this is happening because each truck is hauling more, not from an increase in the amount of equipment operated as contract carriers in the for-hire truckload market continue to shrink from the lack of new trucks and drivers.

“The drivers of truck freight, including retail, construction, and manufacturing, plus a surge in imports, are helping keep demand high for trucking services.”