December 4, 2017
Column | fastlane

The continuing saga of driver shortages

The national truck driver shortage is expected to reach 50,000 by the end of 2017, with the gap widening to 174,000 by 2026. It's time to get serious about finding solutions.

By Clifford F. Lynch

"American truckers are expecting the amount of freight moving across U.S. highways to grow quickly in the next few years. Will they have the ability to carry it? Standing in their way are a number of issues, including a growing driver shortage." If that sounds to you like a quote from the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals' latest "State of Logistics Report" or a recent American Trucking Associations press release, that's understandable. But it's not. Those words actually appeared in a 1989 article in Purchasing magazine.

Today, some 28 years later, the problem persists. In a report released in October, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) warned that the industry would be short about 50,000 drivers by the end of 2017—the highest level on record. If current trends hold and freight volumes continue to rise, the shortfall could widen to 174,000 by 2026, according to the report, "Truck Driver Shortage Analysis 2017."

As for the reasons for the shortage, some of it has to do with demographics: an aging work force, the 21 minimum age requirement for interstate drivers (which effectively eliminates candidates in the 18-21 age group who are often in the process of choosing careers), and a lack of interest among women in driving as a career.

But that's just part of the story. As we all know, lifestyle issues play into it as well. Few U.S. workers want a job that keeps them away from home for extended periods and forces them to subsist on a truck-stop diet of chicken-fried steak and macaroni and cheese. Further complicating matters, a rapidly strengthening economy means more job alternatives are available to current and would-be drivers, the ATA report notes. These include construction jobs, which tend to be local and don't require the extensive travel truck driving does—attributes that are liable to appeal to job candidates, the report points out.

Solving the problem will likely require efforts on multiple fronts. For instance, at the ATA's Management Conference & Exhibition in October, U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta announced the formation of a task force to promote apprenticeship programs for workers in industries like trucking—a move that could lead to more opportunities for paid on-the-job training. This has been suggested by the ATA in the past and could expand the driver candidate pool, with the government providing subsidies to those who qualify. The administration has expressed support for the program, and hopefully, there will be a quick follow-through. Omaha, Neb.-based truckload and logistics giant Werner Enterprises has had such a program in place for some time, enrolling over 38,000 drivers, many of whom have received government benefits in addition to their salaries.

Another part of the solution may be ensuring better treatment of drivers. For as long as we've heard about driver shortages, we've also heard about the mistreatment of drivers at shipping and receiving facilities—including complaints about lack of access to restrooms and having to endure lengthy delays. There is no question that the shipper community could do better in this regard. While some companies have adopted policies aimed at improving the driver experience, a surprising number have not or have become lax. They would do well to remember that this problem will not be solved by the carriers alone.

What about those self-driving trucks that are all over the news? To those who say autonomous vehicles will solve the problem, I say "maybe." I believe we are several years away from widespread utilization, but down the road, as use expands, the technology could very well appeal to a broader base of younger workers. As jobs go, being the on-board supervisor of a driverless truck would be far less stressful than operating one of today's big rigs—and in all probability, far more fun.

About the Author

Clifford F. Lynch
Columnist
Clifford F. Lynch is principal of C.F. Lynch & Associates, a provider of logistics management advisory services, and author of Logistics Outsourcing – A Management Guide and co-author of The Role of Transportation in the Supply Chain. He can be reached at cliff@cflynch.com.

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