Trucking is one of the biggest industries in the US. According to the American Trucking Associations, Inc. (ATA), there were 3.49 million truck drivers in 2021 and nearly 8 million people in jobs related to the trucking industry.
However, the ATA estimates that the industry needs more nearly 80,000 truck drivers, especially in the longer-haul for-hire truckload area of the market. The “shortage” somewhat eased in the past year when the number of unfilled positions decreased to 78,000 from 81,000 in 2021, after 90% of trucking companies increased operator pay.
According to ATA's projections, the relief in driver shortage is expected to be temporary. The association estimates that the number of unfulfilled positions will rise to more than 130,000 in 2031 unless the industry comes up with solutions.
Factors Contributing to Truck Driver Shortage
According to the ATA, the truck driver shortage has no single cause or solution. However, primary factors that contribute to the shortage include:
High Average Age of Current Truckers
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average age of a US trucker is 55 years old. Hence, we can expect a significant portion of current operators to retire within the next decade, putting the industry in a precarious situation.
Unless truck companies hire more young workers to replace outgoing retirees, the industry could face a nationwide shortage of truck drivers in the next 10 to 20 years.
However, the federal state requirement for obtaining a commercial driver’s license (CDL) could get in the way of filling jobs with younger workers. You have to be at least 21 years old to hold an interstate CDL, leaving three years after high school, wherein potential drivers could get distracted by other work opportunities.
Trucking is a Male-Dominated Industry
Women make up 47% of the workforce but only 8% of all truckers.
Trucking has long been male-dominated, usually viewed as a “man’s job.” While stereotypes around male-centric, labor-intensive occupations are slowly changing, big trucking companies need to make the industry more welcoming to women if they want to tap into the potential workforce pool.
For instance, companies can offer competitive female-specific benefits to attract more women (e.g., paid maternity leave, child care services, etc.) to trucking.
Tough Working Conditions
On average, truck drivers work for about 10 to 12 hours a day. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) limits the driving time to 11 hours a day and the total working time to 14 hours. Truck drivers cannot drive after the 14th-hour mark until they take 10 hours off duty.
However, some drivers drive more than 12 hours straight to meet freight demand and avoid repercussions from their employers. Driving long hours on top of accomplishing other tasks makes truck driving an undeniably exhausting job.
Furthermore, sleep deprivation increases the risk of accidents due to drowsy driving. Truck drivers are ten times more likely to get killed on the job than the average laborer.
Another major contributor to the trucker shortage is the inevitable “trucker lifestyle” that comes with long-haul trucking.
Interstate drivers are at a higher risk of lifestyle-related diseases, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes, due to lower physical activity and high-calorie diets. Truck drivers are also more likely to smoke and drink excessive caffeine to fight drowsiness, increasing the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory ailments.
Furthermore, some tractor-trailer truck drivers have an elevated risk of substance abuse as a way of coping with the job’s stresses. Drug use contributes to the “shortage,” resulting in many operators failing drug tests.
According to BLS Trucking, Inc., the median pay for truck drivers is $48,310 per year or $23.23 an hour in 2021. With housing, food, gas, education, and other living expenses rising, most drivers are not earning enough money to support their families.
There’s also the fact that many large fleets hire independent contractors to take over routes (and address some of the shortage, in some cases). Trucking companies pay these contractors for their services but not their truck maintenance, fuel, and other overhead costs, which benefits the former.
On the other hand, contractors are paid by the mile or per load, meaning they have to work more to earn more money. Contracting does little to address the main issue: low wages for high amounts of work. Instead, it benefits companies by saving money in labor and maintenance costs.
Is There Actually a US Truck Driver Shortage?
The ATA has been keeping track of the truck driver shortage for decades. However, economists and truckers outside the association argue that there is no such shortage.
Economists Stephen V. Burks and Kristen Monaco studied claims by industry leaders, saying the trucking industry was somehow “broken” enough to create a shortage lasting decades. According to standard economics, a shortage fixes itself if you raise wages within a reasonable time.
Burks and Monaco conclude that the trucking industry is not “broken” and functions like other labor markets, although competing to meet labor demands.
"There is no shortage," according to Todd Spencer, the president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), which represents over 150,000 self-employed truckers in the US. The association aims to improve drivers’ livelihoods, which naturally conflicts with ATA’s interests because it represents large truckload carriers.
"The driver shortage has been a persistent issue in our industry for many years," Bob Costello told NPR, chief economist of the ATA. "We have numerous examples of fleets of all sizes raising pay, increasing bonuses, and increasing benefits, like time at home, in response to the shortage."
Pandemic Affects Trucker Shortage
The pandemic has worsened the driver shortage, said the ATA chief economist, and will get worse with older drivers leaving the workforce.
According to Spencer, the actual problem is retention, not a driver shortage. According to ATA statistics, the average yearly turnover rate for long-haul trucking has been higher than 90% in the past several decades. The retention problem can be traced back to the common issues in trucking, including low compensation, demanding hours, health risks, and other factors.
"We have millions of people who have been trained to be heavy-duty truck drivers who are currently not working as heavy-duty truck drivers because the entry-level jobs are terrible," said Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania studying the trucking industry.
Truck Companies Want to Pay Truckers Less
On the other hand, some carriers observe improvements in the driver shortage after investing in their labor force. “The driver shortage has eased somewhat if you can pay enough money,” said Bill Usher Jr., president of Usher Transport, a Kentucky-based tanker company.
However, many big trucking companies are still pushing for cheap labor. For instance, a federal apprenticeship pilot program that will lower the age requirement for interstate driving from 21 to 18 is in the works, although it has caused a public divide. Some people find it beneficial, while others are apprehensive about young, new drivers handling large rigs across state lines.
It’s an “exciting prospect,” according to Werner Enterprises Chairman, President, and CEO Derek Leathers during an ATA Management Conference & Exhibition luncheon panel. Werner Enterprises, along with other large carriers J.B. Hunt Transport Services and Swift Transportation, have had average turnover rates of 94% from 1995 to 2017.
How Can the Trucking Industry Address High Turnover Rates?
While an actual “shortage” is plausible, a more straightforward explanation for the lack of workers is that carriers have trouble retaining drivers. There are enough people interested in driving trucks for a living. But, according to Spencer, many companies (typically the larger ones) struggle to retain their workers.
“Some companies actually see drivers as a resource, as an extension of the company,” Spencer told FreightWaves. “They stick around because they’re treated well. Some companies treat drivers as labor. Of course, the goal of many companies is to find low-cost labor. Those are the ones that churn drivers.”
Low driver wages are not the only issue. Although the average driver pay has increased over the years (partly due to increased freight rates), many CDL holders choose other occupations that would pay the same amount if it meant they could go home every day instead of long-haul trucking.
What Makes Truck Drivers Stay?
It all boils down to retention. Experts believe that if a trucking company shifts its focus to keeping its employees, it would significantly reduce its workforce problems.
Potential policy changes and market responses could help reduce truck driver retention issues:
Higher Driver Pay and Competitive Benefits: An average person would be more willing to accept a truck driving job if the wages were higher than other occupations requiring the same skills.
Attracting More Truck Driver Demographics: Women, minorities, and veterans are underrepresented within the industry. Freight carriers can resolve their internal shortages by tapping into these groups.
Lifestyle Support: The average truck driver is at risk of numerous health issues, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and mental health disorders. Addressing these lifestyle-related problems could make it easier for every truck driver to handle the extreme demands of trucking in healthier ways (and reduce healthcare costs for the company).
Reducing Driving Time: The law limits how long drivers can operate trucks for every shift. Setting driving times to less than 11 hours could remove many lifestyle-related issues from the scene, particularly sleep deprivation.
Whether the problem is a “shortage” or poor retention is debatable. What economists and pro-trucker associations do believe is that the industry’s high turnover rates will remain an issue until fleets learn how to care for and keep their employees.