In the expansive realm of American logistics, a pressing concern has taken center stage – a profound shortage of truck drivers that not only exists presently but is projected to escalate before any semblance of resolution becomes apparent.
Experts anticipate a worsening truck driver shortage, projecting a deficit of approximately 160,000 drivers by 2030, a report revealed. Factors contributing to this shortage include high demand, a retiring workforce, and a lack of new drivers entering the industry.
Global Shortage of Truck Drivers
The 2023 driver shortage report by IRU revealed that 36 countries under scrutiny faced a significant challenge, with over three million truck driver positions currently vacant, constituting 7% of the total positions surveyed.
The widening gap between younger and older drivers signals an impending exacerbation of the issue over the next five years unless substantial measures are taken.
IRU conducted a comprehensive survey of more than 4,700 trucking companies across the Americas, Asia, and Europe, collectively representing 72% of the global GDP. The findings underscore a global increase in truck driver shortages in 2023, with the exception of Europe and the United States.
Notably, these two regions experienced a slight alleviation of shortages in 2023, attributed to softer transport demand influenced by factors such as inflation and tighter monetary policies constraining consumption and investment.
Truck Drivers Shortage in the United States
A recent study highlights a dire shortage of truck drivers in the United States, necessitating the immediate need for over 80,000 drivers to address the shortfall this year.
Unfortunately, indications suggest that a prompt resolution to this issue is unlikely. Projections extend into the future, painting a concerning picture as it is believed that, by the year 2030, the shortage is anticipated to escalate to a staggering 160,000 truck drivers.
In 2021, the American Trucking Association, a trade association, revealed that trucking companies in the United States encountered a historic deficit of 80,000 drivers. With trucks responsible for moving 72 percent of American freight, the shortage of drivers poses a significant threat to operational continuity.
“Since we last released an estimate of the shortage, there has been tremendous pressure on the driver pool,” Robert Costello, the trade association's chief economist, said. “Increased demand for freight, pandemic-related challenges from early retirements, closed driving schools and DMVs, and other pressures are really pushing up demand for drives and subsequently the shortage.”
In 2019, the American Trucking Association released a Truck Driver Shortage Analysis and its key findings.
In the study, the association revealed that the trucking industry faced a shortage of approximately 60,800 drivers in 2018, marking a nearly 20% increase from the 2017 figure of 50,700. It also warned that if current trends persist, the shortage is projected to surge to over 160,000 by 2028.
The Truck Driver Shortage in the US is a Huge Problem
The alarming crisis is particularly disconcerting given the country’s heavy reliance on the crucial role played by the trucking industry in sustaining various aspects of the nation's economy and infrastructure.
“We only have a little more than one of every two adults participating in the workforce,” Danny Markstein of strategic communications agency Markstein said.
Markstein claimed that when the 2024 year-end projected national average of workforce participation is “about 60.9 percent, it creates a real challenge when you’re trying to build a workforce. This is what’s behind the shortage of professional truck drivers.”
Moreover, the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., reports that drivers over 55 outnumber their younger counterparts fivefold in the workforce. As this older demographic retires in the coming decade, the shortage of professional truck drivers could intensify.
Zippia also supported this report, stating that professional truck drivers, with an average age exceeding 40 years, make up 72% of the overall professional truck driver population.
Root Causes of the Truck Driver Shortage
The ATA found numerous factors contributing to the truck driver shortage, and the primary reasons for this industry-wide challenge are outlined below.
1. Age Demographics
Over-the-road truck drivers have a median age of 46.15, compared to the national median of 42 for all U.S. workers. Some sectors, like private fleet drivers, exhibit an even higher median age of 57.
The current age requirement of 21 for driving a tractor-trailer across state lines results in interstate motor carriers missing out on the 18 to 21 age group. These individuals often find employment in construction, retail, or fast-food industries, as they can begin their careers at a younger age.
Notably, the average age of new driver trainees is 35 years old.
2. Gender Demographics
Despite females constituting nearly 47% of all U.S. workers, they make up only 6.6% of truck drivers. This percentage has remained relatively stagnant since 2000, representing an untapped segment of the population for the industry.
While some trucking companies prioritize recruiting female drivers, the highest observed percentage within fleets is around 20%.
3. Lifestyle Factors
New drivers are often assigned routes that keep them on the road for extended periods before returning home, typically a week or two.
Consequently, trucking is not merely a career but a lifestyle that may not align with everyone's preferences or needs. As drivers gain tenure, they can transition into regional or local driving positions. Considering drivers under 21 years old becomes essential, as this age group is more likely to embrace a road-centric lifestyle before starting families.
4. Increased Job Alternatives
Unlike years ago when the trucking industry was one of the primary employers, today's job market offers diverse alternatives for current and potential truck drivers.
The improved overall job market, coupled with a lower unemployment rate – the lowest since December 1969, according to the U.S. Department of Labor – means more options are available.
The construction industry, in particular, has expanded payrolls, providing nearly 1.4 million jobs over the last five years. Many of these jobs are local and do not require extensive travel, making them more appealing to individuals seeking stability.
Course of Action
There is no single cause of the driver shortage, and therefore, there is no one way to solve it. Below is a brief list of market reactions and possible policy solutions to relieve the driver shortage, as per the ATA:
1. More At-Home Time
Potential drivers often hesitate to take a job that requires so much time away from home, especially at first.
The increased prevalence of retail distribution centers and use of the hub and spoke system has drastically reduced the average length-of-haul across the industry; this reduction In travel distances could and should translate to less time on the road for drivers.
However, there are practical limits to how much the industry can reduce length-of-haul and increase at-home time.
2. Lower Driving Age
Interstate driving currently has an age minimum of 21. The 18-20-year-old segment has the highest unemployment rate of any age group, yet this is an entire segment the industry cannot access (with the exception of local in-Aate routes, with intra-state freight, which Is generally reserved for seniority).
Additionally, potential drivers are likely to have found another career path (already three years into) by the time they reach the age of 21.
ATA is supportive of drivers younger than 21 far interstate moves, with significantly more training than is currently required and with a significant amount of safety technology on the truck.
The Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy (DRIVE) Safe Act would create apprenticeships that train 18-21-year-olds to drive trucks in interstate commerce. The DRIVE Safe Act requires 400 hours of training, of which 240 hours are behind the wheel, in trucks with active braking collision mitigation systems, forward-facing video event capture, and governed speeds of 65 MPH at the pedal.
The bill would remove the single most significant regulatory barrier underlying the truck driver shortage while equipping young people with skills to start careers that offer livable wages with health and retirement benefits.
3. Improved Driver Image
Unfortunately, the public perception of a truck driver is sometimes negative.
“Trucking Moves America Forward'', of which ATA is a founding member, is an example of a positive Image Initiative and will work to highlight a demanding but rewarding career for potential drivers.
4. Transitioning Military Personnel to Careers as Truck Drivers
ATA supports efforts to ease the driver shortage by facilitating the transition of military veterans into fulfilling careers in the trucking Industry. These efforts include making It easier for active duty military personnel to obtain their commercial learner's permit while stationed outside of their home state, as well as efforts to allow those with a military occupation as a truck driver to have military truck driver training and experience counted toward the civilian licensing requirements.
5. Better Treatment and Reduced Wait Times by the Supply Chain
Under a challenging lifestyle, drivers often complain of mistreatment at shipping and receiving facilities.
Complaints range from restricting access to restrooms to waiting extended periods before loading or unloading the trailer. Improving the experience for drivers at drop-off and pickup locations would provide a more attractive career choice.
All companies in the supply chain, including trucking companies, shippers, and receivers, need to treat drivers with the respect they deserve. When shippers and receivers reduce driver waiting times, they increase effects capacity. In other words, drivers, from less waiting, can drive more within the hours-of-service limits.
Truckers Needed in the Future
In the upcoming years, the industry will require many new truck drivers. The ATA analysis delves into the anticipated demand over the next decade.
Considering both industry expansion and the replacement of drivers exiting the profession due to retirement or other reasons, the sector is projected to necessitate nearly 1.1 million new drivers, averaging just under 110,000 annually.
The breakdown of total drivers needed from 2019 through 2028 highlights various reasons contributing to the demand, including retirements, industry growth, drivers leaving before retirement, and those pushed out of the industry.
Retirements and industry growth emerge as the primary drivers of future demand. With the aging driver population, retirements account for over 54% of the projected need. Following closely, industry growth constitutes the second-largest factor, contributing to over 25% of the demand, equivalent to more than 270,000 drivers by 2028.
Notably, drivers may leave the industry before retiring. Some opt for alternative careers offering a daily return home, such as construction jobs, as they find the trucking lifestyle unsuitable. Others may not voluntarily exit but face dismissal due to driving incidents or disqualifications. The combined impact of these two groups constitutes 20% of the annual demand for drivers.
This breakdown underscores the multifaceted nature of the industry's future driver requirements, with retirements and growth playing pivotal roles alongside drivers leaving voluntarily or involuntarily.
Navigating the Complex Path Ahead
The truck driver shortage predates the pandemic, underscoring a longstanding issue that demands immediate attention.
As we navigate these challenging times, the hope is that governmental recognition of the severity of this problem sparks thoughtful interventions for a sustainable solution in the years to come.