December 8, 2016
Column | outbound

Blips on the radar

The truck driver shortage has long seemed as inevitable as death and taxes. But there are signs the crunch may be starting to ease.

By Mitch Mac Donald

The figurative radar screen of a business journalist who has covered supply chain and logistics for 30-some years is always cluttered with topics. Some come, and some go. There are, though, a few constants. Among them is the seemingly ever-present driver shortage in the trucking industry.

It's been around far longer than 30 years. In fact, it's been around even longer than radar screens, whether figurative or literal. Consider this commentary from a magazine called Traffic World: "Practically all truck manufacturers and nearly all employers complain of the great difficulty of securing drivers who are competent and who will work handling freight."

Nothing new there, but rather, something very old. The quote appeared in a magazine that ceased publishing over 15 years ago. Furthermore, it ran in an edition dated Dec. 12, 1914. Point made?

So, as we have opined in the past, it may be time we stop talking about solving the problem and instead, acknowledge its inevitability and start focusing on how best to cope with it.

As for how that might happen, we've seen some encouraging signs in the form of blips that recently appeared on this journalist's radar screen.

The first blip arose from the publication of our October issue's cover story, a profile of Ellen Voie, head of Women In Trucking. Voie's mission is to bring more women into the motor freight work force by dismantling the barriers that inhibit women from joining the driver ranks. As we wrote in that cover story, there are an estimated 200,000 women behind the wheel of big rigs rumbling down our highways, but there could and should be many more. (While women represent over half the U.S. population, women drivers represent less than 5 percent of the country's nearly 4 million-member truck-driver work force.) We commend Voie's efforts to get more women into trucking and remain optimistic that recruiting more women into the field will be part of the solution.

The second blip came across the radar screen in early November. A report from Glassdoor.com, a job search website, showed that year over year, truck drivers reported the highest percentage wage increase of the 60 career categories the site tracks. Compared with October 2015, truck drivers' wages grew 7.8 percent. That's far better than the 2.8-percent average for all careers tracked by Glassdoor.com.

This brings to mind the basic law of supply and demand. While recognizing that other market factors have kept freight rate increases to a minimum, we have never been able to get a clear answer on why the driver shortage cannot be eased by offering higher wages. After all, demand is high and supply is low. It's about as simple as economics can get.

The third and final radar screen blip relates to recent news reports on autonomous (or driverless) trucks. Successful freight deliveries in both the U.S. and Europe may provide a glimpse of the future. It is unlikely the use of autonomous trucks will explode overnight. But if one looks out at the 10-year, or even five-year, horizon, it seems all but certain that we will be sharing the roads with big rigs that don't have a human behind the wheel (assuming, of course, that trucks of the future have steering wheels at all).

While none of those individual radar blips is likely to resolve our driver woes anytime soon, perhaps in concert they will make a difference. Perhaps the day will come in the not-so-distant future when driverless trucks are so widespread that the shortage becomes a non-issue. Until that day arrives, recruiting new drivers, especially female drivers, and raising the wages paid to all drivers could help bridge the gap.

About the Author

Mitch Mac Donald
Group Editorial Director
Mitch Mac Donald has more than 30 years of experience in both the newspaper and magazine businesses. He has covered the logistics and supply chain fields since 1988. Twice named one of the Top 10 Business Journalists in the U.S., he has served in a multitude of editorial and publishing roles. The leading force behind the launch of Supply Chain Management Review, he was that brand's founding publisher and editorial director from 1997 to 2000. Additionally, he has served as news editor, chief editor, publisher and editorial director of Logistics Management, as well as publisher of Modern Materials Handling. Mitch is also the president and CEO of Agile Business Media, LLC, the parent company of DC VELOCITY and CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly.

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