The trucking industry will face a shortage by year's end of 47,500 drivers to operate the nation's heavy-duty fleets, an increase of nearly 10,000 available positions from 2014 and the highest level on record, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) said today.
If the economy shows modest improvement in 2016, the shortfall could jump to 73,000 drivers by the end of next year, ATA said. If current trends hold for the rest of the decade and into the next, the shortage may climb to almost 175,000 positions by 2024, as the industry will need nearly 890,000 drivers by that time, or nearly 89,000 a year on average, ATA said.
The group emphasized that driver shortages may never reach those levels. However, it warned that unless current trends are reversed, businesses will experience significant shipping delays, higher inventory-carrying costs due to the need to keep more buffer stock, and possibly shortages at stores.
The future demand for drivers will come mostly from retirements and from traffic growth; those two factors account for 78 percent of the future need for drivers, ATA said. The average driver age in the over-the-road truckload industry is 49. There are an estimated 3.4 million tractor-trailer drivers in the U.S.
The methodology used by ATA excludes the impact of government regulations on driver supply and demand. Those regulations include requirements for all fleets to install electronic logging devices starting at the end of 2015, and any changes to the Department of Transportation's driver hours-of-service laws, parts of which have been suspended by Congress pending further DOT analysis into the impact of those provisions.
The problem for motor carriers is compounded by their inability to find qualified applicants. About 88 percent of fleets surveyed in 2012 said most applicants were unqualified to be drivers. As a result, the current shortage seems much worse to trucking firms than the current statistics suggest, according to the report.
Besides an aging workforce, gender demographics are working against the industry, the report said. Though women comprise 47 percent of all workers, they account for only 6 percent of all drivers, the report said. There are more available job alternatives today than there were three to five years ago, meaning that workers have a greater selection of jobs that may pay better and don't require much away-from-home time, the report said. Though the trucking supply chain is working to compress delivery schedules to enable drivers to be home more frequently, there are limits to the extent lengths-of-haul can be reduced and at-home time increased, the report said.
Driver pay has increased substantially over the past two years. However, it is believed higher pay alone will not solve the driver shortage. Other problems include the negative perceptions surrounding truck driving and the often-difficult working conditions that drivers face.
Noel Perry, a senior economist at consultancy FTR Associates, pegs the current driver shortage at about 125,000. Perry, whose estimates have typically skewed much higher than ATA's, said that represents a decline of about 100,000 drivers from a year ago. Perry said the trend will reverse itself in about a year, as the impact of government regulations, traffic growth, and unfavorable demographics propel the shortage of drivers to all-time highs, even by his calculations.
Besides attempting to attract more women, the industry needs to focus on recruiting more military veterans, the report said. ATA recently committed to hiring 100,000 veterans as part of a multi-industry initiative called "Hiring our Heroes."
The report said that converting freight from highway to rail intermodal service will do little to offset the impact of driver shortages, especially since trucking accounts for 69 percent of intercity commerce and an intermodal move requires trucks and drivers to perform dray services at both ends. Autonomous vehicles may, in the long run, ease the shortage, the report said. However, the industry is still many years away from integrating driverless heavy-duty trucks into its everyday activities, according to the report.