Business is picking up in the foodservice industry as restaurant restrictions ease and the distributors that supply them focus on diversifying their business, but the progress is giving way to a problem that had largely disappeared last spring: a lack of available candidates for the industry’s truck-driving jobs.
Lockdowns in the early days of the pandemic had created an abundance of drivers, as business dropped off and distributors cut back on routes. But as conditions improve, industry watchers say the need for drivers is becoming acute once again and is drawing attention to previous efforts to attract talent.
“Business has slowly come back, and the industry is doing well,” said Mark Allen, president and CEO of the International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA), which represents distributors that sell food and related supplies to restaurants, schools, hospitals, and other institutions. “We thought there would be a reprieve—that we’d not need drivers so quickly.”
But as early as January, Allen said more and more distributors were having trouble finding enough drivers to accommodate growing demand for deliveries.
“[Some are] pulling routes back [and] turning business down in some instances because they don’t have the capacity,” he said. “It’s a very real issue.”
IFDA has worked with the American Trucking Associations (ATA) on research and lobbying efforts related to what they refer to as a nationwide truck-driver shortage. The groups estimate there will be a shortage of about 160,000 drivers by 2028 and that the industry will need to hire about 1.1 million drivers over the next 10 years to keep pace with turnover and retirements, Allen said.
Both groups support the DRIVE-Safe Act, a bipartisan bill last introduced in Congress in 2019 that proponents say will help companies attract younger drivers to the industry. The bill aims to lift age restrictions that prevent drivers from crossing state lines and to improve safety and training through a rigorous apprenticeship program. The DRIVE acronym stands for Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy. Proponents say it will open doors to new career paths for younger workers.
“What we find is, if we lose [young people] to construction, plumbing, and electrical [trades], it’s hard to make them switch [to driving],” Allen explained, adding that he’s hopeful the DRIVE-Safe Act will be reintroduced in the new Congress, where he says it has support from Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) and others.
“They see it as a jobs issue, as a way to provide younger people with well-paying jobs that provide benefits and get them into a growing profession—without getting into college debt,” he said.
Paul Saval, CEO of foodservice distributor Saval Foods, agrees there’s a long-term need for a new generation of truck drivers, but he says demand may be most acute in the coming months, when business traditionally picks up in the spring. He says his company hadn’t felt a crunch for drivers until late January.
“This is definitely a challenge for our industry,” said Saval, whose company serves customers throughout the mid-Atlantic. “Once the economy starts to crank up again we’ll be right back in it.”
Saval and Allen point to some unique challenges facing foodservice industry drivers, including the need to load and unload trucks themselves and deliver products to kitchens and back-of-house restaurant operations—physical tasks that can put them in close contact with customers. Saval pointed to industry efforts to prioritize drivers for Covid-19 vaccination as an important step to helping close the hiring and retention gap. At the same time, he said the industry’s need for drivers to handle regular routes, as opposed to long-haul assignments, helps offset some of those issues.
“They are home at night,” rather than on the road for long stretches of time, he said. "And they gain relationships with customers. Especially in normal times, they interact quite a bit and get the chance to build relationships."
More broadly, the rapid acceleration of e-commerce and increasing volume of products flowing through the supply chain are creating a more competitive driver landscape that is likely here to stay, Allen said.
“The larger issue [is that] the last mile is finally getting its due as an incredibly important part of the supply chain,” he said. “We’re competing with B2C [business-to-consumer] companies for drivers and warehouse personnel, and with the retail grocery [industry]. There is a lot of competition.”