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U.S. Shippers & Carriers Wrestle with a Growing Truck Driver Shortage

May 3, 2021
As production and business activity ramp up in 2021, a persistent truck driver shortage is creating a capacity crunch and driving up freight rates nationwide.

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A truck driver shortage was already in full effect pre-COVID, and it has become a growing concern for buyers that are not only concerned about delivery lead times, but are also facing higher freight rates as a result of this ongoing dearth of drivers.

With nearly 70% of all domestic freight moved across U.S. highways, the driver shortage is a critical issue right now. Without drivers in the seats of those trucks—and with autonomous trucking and drone deliveries still in the development stages—getting that freight from origin to destination has become more complex and less affordable.

Factor the global pandemic, component shortages and supply chain disruption into the equation, and the situation isn’t getting any easier as we move further into 2021. The shortage is exerting cost pressure on transportation carriers in the form of higher driver wages, bonuses, recruiting costs and benefits. These increases are being passed along to companies in the form of higher transportation rates.

The highest-demand job in the country is for truck drivers, particularly those who can handle heavy commercial vehicles and tractor-trailer rigs,” LA Times reports, noting that nearly 760,000 such trucking positions were open in December—roughly three times the openings for registered nurses, the second-most high-demand job right now.

No End in Sight

According to Beroe, a provider of procurement intelligence and supplier compliance solutions, the truck driver shortage may be the “new normal” for transportation, at least for the foreseeable future. In examining the bulk tanker market, Beroe says this sector alone will require 174,000 new truckers over the next five years.

“There are approximately 63,000 truck-driving jobs in the bulk tanker market that are vacant today, and the global tanker trucks market size is predicted to need 174,000 new truckers by 2026,” Beroe explains in a press release. “This kind of decline affects the rates due to the capacity shortage.”

In comparison to Class 1 railroads, which employed approximately 165,000 people in 2017, the trucking industry employed more than 1.8 million drivers—10 times higher than the former. The American Trucking Association (ATA) estimates the current driver shortage of 63,000 could surge significantly in the next five years unless intervened with proper steps.

Beroe says demography is the primary cause for the shortage. “In the U.S., bulk tanker market trends show that truck drivers tend to be about seven years older than normal American labor,” it explains. “As they retire, it becomes difficult to replace them because the younger workforce is always looking for less-demanding careers, particularly in other industries.”

Potential Roadblocks for Drivers

Other factors creating the driver shortage right now include challenging working conditions that contribute to an overall attrition rate of over 100% for the profession. “This has resulted in an increased cost and rate for shippers,” Beroe says, adding that other contributing factors include recent changes in electronic logging device (ELD) mandates and hours of services (HoS) rules, both of which dictate the number of hours a driver can spend behind the wheel. 

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse online database, which provides employers and government agencies with real-time access to information about CDL driver drug and alcohol program violations, is also creating potential—albeit necessary—roadblocks both for new and existing drivers.

Put in place in January 2020, the clearinghouse is an online database that provides employers, driver licensing agencies and law enforcement officials with real-time results of the required drug and alcohol tests taken by professional drivers. “In the first six weeks of operation,” NACS reports, “the clearinghouse detected and identified nearly 8,000 positive substance abuse tests of commercial drivers, including bus, limousine, municipal and construction equipment operators, as well as truckers.”

Casting a Wider Net

While there is no single solution to the truck driver shortage, Beroe outlines a few good starting points in its report. For example, it says many trucking companies have started optimizing shipping routes and using technology to improve drivers’ lives to ensure that they spend less time on the road.

“Companies now should also reach out to women, minorities and veterans to take up the wheel and bring down the present and expected shortage,” Beroe advises. “Change in shift patterns to improve schedules that prevent unsocial hours is another course of action recommended to mitigate driver shortage issues.”

With Driverless Class 8 trucks now in the production pipeline, Beroe also sees driver-assist technology for heavy tractor-trailers as a boon that will make the job less stressful, reducing the high attrition rates. “The bend on technology,” it adds, “will also attract a younger crowd towards the profession.”

About the Author

Bridget McCrea | Contributing Writer | Supply Chain Connect

Bridget McCrea is a freelance writer who covers business and technology for various publications.

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