By Emily Newton
The US faces an unprecedented labor shortage in the trucking industry, which impacts the entire nation’s economy. Without truck drivers to move goods from state to state, supply chain operations can slow or come to a halt. Even if pay increases and more companies improve employee work-life balance, why are truck driver numbers still so low?
THE CURRENT DRIVER SHORTAGE
According to Bob Costello, chief economist of the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the trucking industry was short 78,000 drivers in 2022, compared to 81,000 in 2021. Costello shares that the number of drivers is short of anticipated freight demand, which is only expected to increase in the coming years.
And while 2022 saw an improvement in truck driver numbers, the ATA suggests that it will likely be temporary. The aging workforce and the increased amount of freight transported will continue to exacerbate the industry’s labor shortage. It’s expected that the ongoing labor shortage will remain a pressing concern for industry leaders in 2023.
WHY NUMBERS ARE STILL LOW
There are a few reasons why there’s still a noticeable truck driver shortage in the US. Let’s look at the average pay for these workers as an example.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that heavy and tractor-trailer drivers earned a median annual salary of around $48,310, or about $23 per hour. As the cost of living increases around the nation, this salary makes it challenging for employees to make ends meet.
Here are some other factors contributing to the industry’s truck driver shortage.
DIFFICULTY WITH DEMOGRAPHICS
Despite women making up almost half of the nation’s workforce, there are still a low number of women working in the transportation industry. According to Women in Trucking, female drivers comprise only 13% of the total number of truck drivers.
Right now, the industry struggles to recruit and retain female drivers, in addition to millennials and Gen Z workers. Younger generations are less likely to work in the logistics industry due to how they perceive it—some workers may think they’ll have to work longer hours, while others may not be interested in doing manual labor. Ultimately, companies will need to find new ways to make the transportation and logistics industry more attractive to younger candidates.
Although there’s a low number of women in trucking, it’s possible more will break into the industry in the future. The Women in Trucking Association suggests that the number of women earning their CDLs will increase, which could help alleviate the labor shortage.
CHALLENGING WORK-LIFE BALANCE
The lifestyle that comes with a truck driving job is one that many are not well-suited for. Often, truck drivers spend long hours on the road, transporting essential goods to their destinations. It can be challenging for truck drivers to strike a balance between work and their personal lives, which can quickly lead to symptoms of burnout.
Additionally, overworked drivers can be dangerous drivers, as they may fall asleep at the wheel or feel less alert due to exhaustion, which could lead to increased accidents on the road.
Many companies, especially in the post-pandemic era, are trying to improve work-life balance for their employees; but it’s not a change that can happen overnight. With demand for freight transportation increasing, it will certainly be a recurring obstacle trucking companies will have to grapple with.
BARRIERS TO ENTRY
The trucking industry also has a few barriers to entry. For example, applicants with a criminal history or no work experience are less likely to be hired by companies. Additionally, the minimum age requirement for entry is 18, but only allows drivers to transport freight within their state.
After a driver reaches 21, they can operate commercial vehicles in other states. Due to these regulations, companies may struggle to find people over the age of 21 to drive interstate routes. Another barrier to entry in trucking is failing federally mandated drug screenings. In 2020, the Washington Times reported that thousands of truck drivers left the industry after testing positive for a prohibited substance.
The ATA states that various infrastructure issues are another factor playing into the industry’s truck driver shortage. There are often a lack of truck parking spots in certain areas, meaning drivers must pull over elsewhere—including off the beaten path—to stay for the night. Without enough infrastructure to support drivers on the road, longer hours could be spent away from home.
Drivers may feel reluctant to continue working if they struggle to find parking spots in the right locations. Another issue is traffic congestion. Congestion can reduce delivery efficiency, meaning drivers have to push back other routes and often cannot make up the time wasted.
HIGH NUMBER OF RETIREMENTS
All labor shortages, regardless of industry, are exacerbated by employee retirements. Workers will steadily reach retirement age, which pushes them out of the workforce. However, if there are more people retiring than being recruited, it will lead to labor shortages, which is what the trucking industry is dealing with right now.
HOW COMPANIES CAN OVERCOME LABOR SHORTAGES
While the driver shortage in trucking will likely continue, research from the ATA found that the industry will need to recruit 1.2 million drivers in the next 10 years. These new recruits will replace retiring drivers, those who leave involuntarily or voluntarily and to account for anticipated industry growth. How can companies reach this goal?
Lower Minimum Driving Age
If younger drivers can earn their CDL and begin working, it could help companies overcome the truck driver shortage. Laws must change to allow young drivers to complete the necessary training and get on the road sooner.
Improve Efficiency with Technology
Using new technology like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), it’s possible for the trucking industry to improve operational efficiency by optimizing routes, choosing the best driver for the job, and speeding up loading and unloading times.
Expand Recruiting Efforts
One surefire way to overcome any labor shortage is to revamp recruiting efforts. Companies should stress the importance of truck drivers and the role they play in the global supply chain. If companies can appeal to younger workers and offer decent compensation and benefits, as well as helping them maintain a work-life balance, they could see improvements in acquiring and retaining new employees.
EXPECT SHORTAGE TO CONTINUE
There’s no knowing when or if the trucking industry will recover from ongoing labor shortages. The ATA projects that demand for drivers will continue to rise into the next decade, as will freight demand.
Having enough employees in trucking is essential to maintain a functioning supply chain. Therefore, companies will need to appeal to younger workers, use new technologies to improve efficiency, and state and federal regulations might need to change to alleviate the shortage of truck drivers rippling across the country.
About the Author
Emily Newton is an industrial writer with over five years’ experience writing industrial topics for the construction, manufacturing, and supply chain industries.