Concerns Over Trucking Industry’s Preferred Solution for Driver Shortages

Even as the most recent data shows a rate of 5.5 percent unemployment in the U.S., a report prepared by The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) for the American Trucking Associations (ATA) shows the industry has some 35,000 unfilled truck driver jobs.

It’s likely that the shortage was not as noticeable during the economic recession as trucking volume plummeted. But as the overall economy has improved, the U.S. now has many more open trucking jobs than available commercial drivers, a situation made worse as older drivers are retiring in greater numbers.

The only way to duplicate the driving experience that vanishes from the highway when older drivers retire is for younger drivers to spend years on the road and master the many details involved in their job, from knowing how to handle dangerous driving conditions to making sure their big rigs are safe to taking the proper rest breaks and maintaining accurate driver logs.

Unfortunately, the shrinking number of experienced drivers means trucking companies are hiring younger, inexperienced drivers who often do not have adequate training and certainly do not have the experience of their older counterparts. While obtaining and maintaining a valid CDL (commercial driver’s license) is a requirement for semi drivers, holding such a license does not equate to having experience or even being a good or careful driver.

According to the ATRI report, the turnover at large truckload carriers rose to an annualized rate of 97 percent in the third quarter of 2014. With those grim statistics, it’s not surprising that the driver shortage emerged as a key concern among survey respondents in ATRI’s annual “Critical Issues in the Trucking Industry” report. The survey asked trucking companies to rank their key issues in order of perceived importance, as well as related solutions that the companies would recommend. Almost a quarter of industry leaders cited the lack of drivers as their No. 1 issue of concern, with the survey results placing that issue behind only the perennial complaints about the federal hours-of-service rule.

In response, the ATRI report notes that the preferred strategy to deal with the shortage of drivers is to “work with state and federal authorities to consider a graduated CDL program to safely attract new and younger drivers.” But even the ATRI acknowledges that this shorthand approach can create its own problems if drivers with “a lack of experience, insurability and other age-related factors” are placed on the road too soon. Still, this solution is preferred by almost half of the trucking industry representatives who responded.

If these efforts are formalized across the industry, everyone on the road can be legitimately worried about young truck drivers with minimal or fast-track training traveling America’s highways. In fact, the ongoing driver shortage may be best addressed by other strategies that are listed in the report but unfortunately didn’t rank as highly among the survey respondents:

  • Improve work/life balance and quality of life for drivers
  • Financially incentivize drivers for safe driving performance
  • Improve driver safety through investment in new truck parking facilities
  • Attract military veterans who have experience driving large vehicles so they can join the commercial workforce
  • Increase driver compensation. The average truck driver makes $40,940 annually, making the career less attractive and competitive while making it difficult to retain experienced, quality employees

The driver shortage is undeniably real, and the ATRI report projects that the industry could face a gap of almost 240,000 workers between driver supply and demand during the next decade if the trend does not reverse. But in the face of those numbers, the industry must take a multi-faceted approach to attract and retain the best possible candidates for those jobs. Doing so will make the industry better, and our roads and highways safer.