What’s Causing America’s Truck-Driver Shortage? There’s No One Answer.
If you have paid attention to any media outlet in the past two to twenty years, you will no doubt have heard or read a headline that cries of a truck driver shortage. What is causing this? How has it affected carriers? What are companies doing about it? Here we will take a high-level, honest look at the causes, effects, and potential solutions coming out of the government and the private sector. But first, let us get one thing out of the way.
Wait, is there really a shortage?
Some question if there really is a driver shortage and believe it’s a myth. The answer to the question of if there really is a driver shortage is not a simple one. Yes, there is a driver shortage, but there always has been, it is not news to those savvy in the industry. As a general public, we are just hearing more about it because the issue has been exacerbated due to the pandemic and the continuous realization of just how important the role of a truck driver is. As the economy grows and comes back to life since 2020, the shortage is that much more glaring and has only gotten worse. While some claim it is a retention problem, that is one issue that feeds into the shortage as a whole.
Not just one reason:
Though a driver shortage has always been a topic of discussion since the late 1980’s, lately it has been leading news and is portrayed in a crisis-like fashion. So, what gives? According to the “Driver Shortage Update 2021” from American Trucking Association, the shortage is in part due to retirees hanging up their fuel points cards and settling into their own beds at night, with not enough young drivers stepping in to replace them. While the update serves as a loose explanation, it offers many reasons why this is happening.
It is no secret that a day in the life of a trucker is not an easy one. From hauling heavy tarps while atop fourteen-foot loaded flatbeds to facing rigid temperatures year-round, it is difficult to imagine anyone doing this long-term. Especially if they are under additional challenging work environments including stressors from customers, and/or colleagues. Some are leaving one company for another in hopes of better working conditions and/or pay while others are choosing to leave the trucking industry altogether, most of the time taking a dramatic pay cut. It makes sense that another factor in this driver shortage is turnover. In-fact, most major carriers reported 80% turnover in 2021.
Along with an unprecedented amount of pressure on the logistics and transportation world, companies and drivers alike are noticing an increase of mental health awareness in the past decade that has slowly crept into the spotlight for truckers. Known for having grit and a tough-as-nails, independent mindset, the culture of truckers is changing. Day in and day out of getting from point A to point B with successful deliveries can be a rewarding experience but can take a toll from making timely deliveries as well as the chances of dealing with unpleasant shippers and receivers. Further down we discuss how companies are beginning to improve the driver experience, so don’t worry, it is not all doom and gloom.
What about pay, don’t truck drivers make a killing at what they do? Yes and no. While that still may be the case in most companies such as heavy haul driving, over-the-road driving and others, overall drivers are doing more work than they used to with some reporting that they are not receiving respective pay. There are many other factors that go into pay as well such as if a driver is paid by the mile, salary, or by load and depends on cost of living in their area.
Among the multitude of reasons for this shortage, the dreaded supply chain issues have also caused a headache for companies and independent contractors alike. With trucks being used an average of only three years, major companies will sell them and purchase newer models to attract more drivers. Truck manufacturers and repair shops are feeling the strain most other industries are by not being able to produce an ample supply of units or supplies in order to meet demand, thus slowing down the rate at which companies can hire and keep drivers moving.
So far, we have covered a few major reasons for the driver shortage but one that cannot be overlooked is regulations, and not just government regulations but those from insurance companies and their costs. Any owner of a trucking company will tell you that one of their biggest battles is the insurance companies. Trucking companies have a challenging time getting affordable coverage if parts of their work force are younger as well as if they have either a poor driving record and/or a criminal record. So now, not only are trucking companies having difficulty obtaining and retaining drivers but they must be selective in their hiring so that they can continue to afford insurance.
What is the impact on companies inside and outside the industry?
It is hard to grow a business or let alone stay afloat when there is a shortage of your number one resource. Companies in the transportation world have all felt the squeeze in one way or another from the driver shortage. This has forced companies to reevaluate and pivot their strategy for not just recruiting, but in some cases, a focus on driver retention to minimize the revolving door. But for some, unfortunately, it has caused trucking companies to close altogether in the wake of the pandemic.
Companies with smaller fleets have struggled to keep up with the competition to retain their drivers and may not be able to give the pay their competitors offer or mirror the benefits given. This situation has fed into the retention issue mentioned at the beginning of this article. Mix this factor with loss of labor due to Covid, even mid-sized companies such as Rush Trucking had to sell their business in order to break even and do right by their customers.
The ripple effect of this shortage is also damaging to everyday businesses. Small business owners having to either shut down or limit/change production due to lack of driver availability has become commonplace while some mid-size businesses are having to pay more upfront costs to reserve resources they may not see for a few months.
The hard truth is that the shortage is not just an issue within the logistics and transportation industry but has and will continue to affect every part of the economy in some form.
Enough talking about the problem, what is being done about it?
Many have brought about solutions for change but none of them are more climactic than the decision to bring the younger generations into the driver’s seat. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was signed into law that establishes the Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program created by the FMCSA that will allow companies to adopt an apprenticeship for those as young as 18 years old to operate commercial vehicles under strict guidelines.
While this move focuses on getting more physical bodies behind the wheel in hopes to ease the shortage, carriers big and small are taking different approaches knowing that there a plenty of able bodies out there, rather it is a matter of working conditions and regulations.
Long hours, overall attitude towards drivers, home time, and pay are all inflammatory issues that companies are working to resolve in order to retain current drivers and attract new drivers. While some companies' approach is monetary, there are more that are seeing that it is not always about the money.
Younger generations entering the workforce are reevaluating their priorities and choosing quality of life over climbing the ladder. The trucking industry is no exception. An increasing amount of drivers are turning to local or regional jobs that offer more home time. An indisputable side effect of the pandemic was more time with family and the importance of being present for those special moments such as birthdays, sporting events and anniversaries. Considering this, companies are adopting more soft benefits like flexible schedules and increased home time.
While these efforts are slowly showing signs of better driver retention, there are more factors to consider when attempting to attract drivers. One of the biggest being company culture. Logistics and transportation companies are entirely fast paced industries that have to constantly balance making a profit and focusing on their people while doing so.
“Drivers want a positive sense of community where they’re respected, and you know people have their back. That is what gets the job done, that’s a place where a driver will want to work and stay.” says veteran trucker, Ray Haight on building a positive company culture in Trucknews.com
The way of the future
It’s safe to say that the issues are clear to what is causing the driver shortage (or retention problem) and companies are recognizing this as they too are suffering because of it. The trucking industry will have to make the biggest, multifaceted adaption in its history in order to remedy this crisis. It will take drivers and companies to work together to make real change happen and keep the world rolling.
A note from Meadow Lark:
We pride ourselves in investing in driver & customer relations and doing right by all those we work with, in and outside of the company. Since the beginning we have lived by the saying “no bad deals” and “our word is our bond.” As a company, we implement training and continuing education for everyone that works under the Meadow Lark name that focuses on nurturing relationships and keeping true to the values of our company.
For more about who we are and where we come from, check out our latest publication from our CEO, Mandy Roth, Red Chair.