Where Are All the Truckers? Driver Shortages Add to Delays
Updated: Dec 16, 2021
Trucking is a dangerous, difficult job that is in high demand, but driver shortages are showing no sign of abating anytime soon. With the industry on the brink of major technological change, we look at the impact of COVID-19 on the US transport sector and what industry leaders can do to alleviate bottlenecks in US logistics, helping to restore supply chains and get goods flowing freely again.
As the US economy adjusts to the devastating impact of COVID-19, a surge in retail demand created logjams at port terminals and loading docks across the country, placing added pressure on the trucking industry, a sector that is already stretched to capacity. Ultimately, this has made truckers’ jobs even harder at a time when many were already growing increasingly disenchanted.
In May 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was still in its infancy, horns blared down Constitution Avenue in Washington, DC, for the better part of three weeks. Protesting against decreasing pay and escalating insurance costs, truck drivers turned out to voice their discontent. This modestly sized demonstration largely went unreported by mainstream media. Nevertheless, truckers serve as an essential part of the US economy, transporting 72 percent of all the goods we consume. What would happen if America’s 3.5 million truck drivers switched off their engines at once?
Having witnessed some of the chaos that arose in the early days of the pandemic, with shelves running bare and hospitals running dangerously short of PPE, it does not take a huge stretch of the imagination to realize that without the truck driving industry, daily life would grind to a standstill very quickly. We only need to look across the Atlantic to seek the havoc disruptions to supply chains can cause, as gas stations run dry and British motorists queue up for hours, desperate to fill up their tanks. If all the US truck drivers stopped working at once, we would see something very similar.
Ricky Rodriguez is a flatbed truck driver working up to 14 hours a day hauling aluminum, steel, and timber across the Midwest. In a recent interview, he commented bluntly that without truck drivers, the world would come to a stop. Podcast host Paul Marhoefer, a veteran trucker himself, was equally pessimistic, noting, “The biggest effect would be on the psyche of the nation.”
With many fleets complaining that they are unable to hire enough drivers to satisfy booming demand, truck drivers are leaving the industry in droves, disgruntled over low pay, unsociable hours, and poor working conditions. With a turnover rate of more than 90 percent, the long-haul truck driving industry has seen an exodus of experienced drivers over the past 12 months, particularly due to the COVID-19-related pits and troughs of retail demand placing unprecedented strain on drivers. Many logistics experts warn that there simply are not enough recruits coming into the industry to compensate for retiring truckers and those leaving the industry for other sectors.
Shortfalls in transport and logistics are not only delaying deliveries for manufacturers and retailers trying to prepare for the holiday peak, but they’re also driving up costs. At the start of the pandemic, trucking payrolls fell significantly, as much of the economy shut down in line with efforts to try to stem transmission of COVID-19 across the country. Nevertheless, between April 2020 and September 2021, more than 74,500 new jobs were created in the transport industry, according to data from the Labor Department. Today, the American Trucking Associations warns that the industry is short of about 80,000 drivers, a significant increase on the shortfall of 61,500 reported before the pandemic.
To help attract more drivers, fleets across the United States are hiking pay rates and offering bonuses. In addition, the American Trucking Associations has backed legislation that will enable truckers as young as 18 to operate big rigs interstate, a job currently reserved for drivers 21 and over. With around a third of truckers on the road aged over 55, it is vital to provide extra incentives such as increased pay and improved working conditions to attract the next generation of truck drivers.
Although many truckers have become disenchanted with the industry, becoming a truck driver can be an excellent career move, one that provides many other benefits in addition to the large pay hikes that have been reported recently. For those who enjoy exploring, trucking provides an opportunity to travel massive tracts of the country while earning steady pay and job security.
With 11.8 billion tons of freight transported by truck in the United States annually, it would be impossible for families and businesses to access the items they need every day without truck drivers. Although there is much speculation about “robots on wheels” taking away truckers’ livelihoods, in truth, it seems unlikely that we will see anything in the way of real change any time soon. If one thing is certain, demand is not going to disappear overnight for an industry worth a reported $800 billion.