Trucking industry report shows driver labor issues have eased slightly

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 1,582 views 

Challenges the trucking industry has faced to recruit and retain truck drivers have moderated following double-digit pay increases in 2021. Still, officials said the industry is short nearly 78,000 truck drivers, and this cannot be resolved by only addressing a single issue, including pay.

According to a Tuesday (Oct. 25) report from American Trucking Associations (ATA), the driver shortage has declined from a record high of 81,258 drivers in 2021. In 2018, the shortage was 61,000 and declined in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic when freight demand softened.

For a PDF of the report, click here.

ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello said while the shortage is down from record levels in 2021, it is “still extremely high historically.”

The report shows that in 2031 the driver shortage could exceed 160,000 drivers at existing trends. ATA previously estimated the shortage would hit the amount by 2030.

New estimates are based on driver demographic trends, including gender and age, and projected freight growth. Over the next 10 years, the industry must recruit nearly 1.2 million new drivers to replace retiring drivers, those that leave voluntarily or involuntarily, and drivers needed to meet the rising freight demand.

According to the report, there’s not one cause for the shortage and no single solution to address it. One trend that’s underway is that driver pay and earnings are rising. The average truckload driver earned more than $69,000 in 2021, including salaries and bonuses but not benefits. This reflects an 18% rise in annual pay from 2019 and an 11% increase from 2020. More than 90% of truckload carriers increased driver pay in 2021.

“The good news is rising pay and other factors have helped the industry attract new drivers,” Costello said. “However, that influx is still not enough to make a substantive difference in the shortage – particularly in the long-haul, for-hire truckload sector, the part of the industry most acutely impacted by the shortage.”

The report attributed the shortage to the high average age of existing drivers leading to a high number of retirements, that women comprise 8% of all drivers but represent 47% of the U.S. workforce, existing and prospective drivers’ inability to pass a drug test, and factors such as minimum age requirements, driving history and criminal background. Other challenges include lifestyle disadvantages, such as being away from home for long periods; and infrastructure issues, including lack of available truck parking and congestion that limits a driver’s ability to make deliveries safely and efficiently.

The report shows that pay alone won’t solve the shortage, and some drivers might choose to work less when offered a pay increase and be home more often. Almost 40% of truckload carriers reported to the ATA that the pay increases in the past year resulted in drivers choosing to drive less, make the same amount of money and be home more often.

Also, the shortage might seem worse for some carriers than the new numbers suggest. Carriers with strict hiring criteria might have few eligible candidates and face applicant quality issues when it comes to hiring drivers. The report does not consider the quality of applicants.

Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, provided the following statement when asked whether Arkansas carriers have noticed any easing in the labor challenges:

“If you have to go to the hospital because you’re running a 103° fever, seeing it drop to 101° is good, but you’re still sick. A decline in the driver shortage is positive, but it’s still a huge issue across the nation and in Arkansas.

“There is a constant demand for professional drivers, especially in our state where trucking employs every one in 10 people. Low unemployment numbers mean we’re competing against all industries to attract new talent.

“Our industry can’t afford to lose a single driver. And that, we fear, is exactly what will happen if recreational marijuana is legalized in Arkansas. Expanded access inevitably leads to increased use. And increased use eliminates potential drivers from the pool of qualified candidates.”