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By Pat Pape

Since last August, merchandise deliveries to Square One Markets in Pennsylvania have been delayed at least 10 times, usually for about 24 hours. The reason: There was no driver available to make the delivery.

“Our distributor has never had that problem before,” said Lisa DellAlba, president and CEO of Square One Markets. “But Pennsylvania is having a terrible time finding workers—construction, convenience store and truck drivers. It’s been difficult and caused a bit of disruption in our organization.”

Although Dell’Alba has been understanding about the delays, the issue is significant. Especially when a popular brand of cigarettes is out of stock.

 “We try to manage our inventory efficiently, so we are not sitting on too much merchandise,” she said. “And I’ve always taught our folks to have an order [of cigarettes] on hand. If you’re out of someone’s cigarettes, it’s like being out of fuel. And cigarette sales have gone up in this area since the pandemic began.”

 

No Shortage?

Talk to people in the trucking industry, and they’ll tell you there is no shortage of truck drivers.

“That’s a myth,” said Norita Taylor, public relations director for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, a Missouri-based organization that advocates for the rights of independent truckers.

“What’s going on is high turnover in the long-haul sector of trucking,” she said. “If you look at the number put out by the American Trucking Associations (ATA), they report extremely high turnover—sometimes 90% or higher. If you have high turnover, you don’t have a shortage. You have a surplus. But you’re not retaining them.”

The challenge of keeping truckers on the road is not new. Western Truck Owner magazine ran a three-part series on the problem back in 1928. Two years ago, the ATA reported that the over-the-road driver population was 550,000 to 600,000, about 60,000 fewer drivers than the number needed. ATA speculates there could be 100,000-plus unfilled positions within four years if the situation doesn’t change.

Since about 71% of all U.S. freight is moved by trucks, a lack of active drivers is a problem. And there are multiple reasons for it, according to ATA. For one, the average driver’s age in the for-hire, over-the-road trucking industry is 46, and many veteran drivers are retiring.

A report published in 2019 by The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) estimated that 898,000 new truck drivers will be needed over the next decade, and half of those jobs will replace current drivers who retire. However, young people aren’t rushing to fill those vacancies.

Several things may discourage them from taking to the road. The expense of attending truck driving school and obtaining a Commercial Driver’s License can range between $3,000 and $7,000, depending on the issuing state. In addition, major carriers typically require new hires to have 1-3 years of driving experience, and then there’s that issue of long periods on the road.

“Today, the average driver is gone [from home] for three weeks at a time,” said Dr. Michael Belzer, a former truck driver who earned a Ph.D. and now studies the trucking industry as an economics professor at Wayne State University. “If you were 22, would you want to do that? Of course, you can always take your knowledge and drive local. You’ll make less money, but you’ll be at home.”

Justin Harness, chief revenue officer of U.S. Xpress Enterprises, one of the nation’s largest carriers, said, “As an industry, we need to look at the nature of the job. Driving a truck is a tough job. You’re often gone for weeks at a time and have an inconsistent lifestyle. This isn’t conducive to those with families. We should focus on putting the driver first—keeping them busy so they’re making money, but also respecting their family time and getting them home when not working.”

The industry has tried to attract all segments of the U.S. population to the driver’s seat of a big rig but has only enjoyed moderate success. In 2018, 40.4% of drivers were minorities, up from 26.6% in 2001, reports ATA. But that same year, only 6.6% of professional drivers were women, a figure that has remained steady for almost two decades.

In 2019, the ATA established a diversity working group to consider ways to boost urban hiring and recruit more women and people of color. The organization plans to partner with historically Black colleges and universities to increase the number of minorities in the industry’s executive ranks.

A new deterrent for potential drivers is the federal government’s Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse, which went into effect in January 2020. Mandated by Congress and administered by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), 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, 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.

According to Harness, the clearinghouse has motivated a substantial number of drivers to leave the industry. “Combined with other factors, like drivers opting for often higher-paying construction jobs, around 200,000 will exit the driving workforce this year (2020) alone,” he said.

Adding to the transportation issue is diminished truckload capacity nationwide. “Carrier bankruptcies nearly quadrupled from 2018 to 2019,” he said. “And continually rising insurance premiums are hobbling small carriers. Add to this relatively flat new truck orders over the past year.”

 

Pay Day

The biggest obstacle to attracting new drivers is likely pay. While Walmart truckers—all of them employees of the retail giant—make a highly publicized salary of about $90,000 a year, the average annual wage for a tractor-trailer truck driver was $45,570 as of May 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The glitch in pay is that “drivers are paid by the mile but regulated by the hour,” said Taylor. The federal hours of service regulations, which mandate how many hours a trucker can drive in a day and when rest breaks are required, “make it very challenging to make a living if you aren’t paid by the hour.”

The average driver works about 65 hours a week “and is not coming home with that much [money],” said Belzer. “And a lot of their time is unpaid, nondriving time,” such as waiting while their trailers are loaded or unloaded.

Shipping is one of the most competitive markets, and “competitive markets drive down rates,” he added. “The shippers and consignees have the leverage. They’re the ones that get the companies competing with each other. The carriers will often take below-compensatory rates to move freight. They want to keep the trucks moving. They may lose money, but they figure on the next load, they’ll make money.”

Trucking is a cyclical industry “that is very commoditized with very thin margins, which makes it difficult for any carrier to provide significant pay increases without a larger catalyst,” said Harness. “Unfortunately, there are no short-term fixes to this problem, but as an industry, there will be opportunities for more discussion—both by trucking companies and our shippers—in the longer-term.”

 

Self-Driving Trucks

Although there is no immediate solution to the need for working truckers, many things are going on in the industry. Numerous companies, including Daimler, Aurora, Waymo and Embark Trucks, are working to develop a self-driving truck that can move goods across the country safely. TuSimple of San Diego already has 40 autonomous trucks transporting goods on U.S. roadways. So far, all of them have a backup driver on board. The company plans to create routes through Texas and between Los Angeles and Jacksonville, Florida, in the next few years.

Belzer has no doubt that these efforts will come to fruition and thinks self-driving trucks could be a solution for moving merchandise and materials between warehouses. But he’s skeptical about seeing them zip along the nation’s highways.

“There are so many pieces behind making this happen, and the development of this technology is expensive. Right now, we’re paying truck drivers minimum wage at best. Why would I pay three times as much for an autonomous truck when I can pay the truck driver so little?” he said. “And I’m not convinced that the public is willing to see an 18-wheeler going down the road without a driver.”

Harness predicts that high driver turnover will continue, “exacerbated by lower commercial driver’s license school enrollment and the Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse,” he said. “It’s becoming increasingly clear that high tide conditions will persist for a long while.”

 

Pat Pape worked in the convenience store industry for more than 20 years before becoming a full-time writer. See more of her articles at patpape.wordpress.com.