Beneath the Surface of the Driver Shortage
The American Trucking Association (ATA) estimates our nation’s driver shortage is hitting an historic high of over 80,000 drivers. Demand for drivers is skyrocketing, yet freight transportation providers can’t find enough of them. There are many factors to consider beneath the surface of the driver shortage, the nuances of working conditions, pay, recruiting and retention, and false perceptions are being worked out.
According to a recent article in TIME, 1.5 million workers were employed in trucking last month. This is just 1% fewer employed in trucking in October 2019 – five months prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying economic restrictions. Despite this data, the American Trucking Association (ATA) says that our driver shortage number - the estimated difference between the number of drivers currently in the market versus the optimal number of drivers based on freight demand - is hitting an historic high of just over 80,000 drivers. Other transportation industry experts peg the driver shortage anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 drivers. Demand is snowballing, yet we can’t find enough drivers. So, what is happening beneath the surface of the driver shortage?
In a best-case free market system, the price for goods and services is set by the give and take between supply and demand until an equilibrium is reached. A free-market system functions optimally in an environment where information flow is equitable. Although it’s possible that the driver shortage concerns occurring in today’s freight transportation industry might very well be a symptom of the “Great Resignation” occurring in the broader labor market, it’s also likely that other factors are playing a role. In fact, what we may be experiencing is the free market sorting out factors that are relevant to drivers now that driver demand is booming – details such as:
Driver retention, and
Drivers are leaving the industry in search of jobs that offer better pay, better benefits, and better working conditions. Working conditions are a valid and long-standing reason to look for new employment, and truckers are no exception to this rule.
Detention and delay issues are a prime example. Drivers sometimes experience longer than acceptable wait times, for which they may or may not be compensated. To relieve the pressures of detention and delay, a collaborative approach between shipper, carrier, and recipient - while difficult to execute - may be a step in the right direction toward alleviating pressure around this pervasive matter.
For other drivers, working condition considerations include weighing their potential income against hours of service (HOS) regulations. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), hours-of-service regulations vary for property-carrying drivers versus people-carrying drivers. Currently, property-carrying drivers may drive a maximum of eleven hours after ten consecutive hours off duty. Beyond this, there are other rules, including the fourteen-hour rule, the 60/70-hour limit, and the thirty-minute break rule. While regulations are designed for safety, many drivers are finding it challenging to adapt and comply while others are viewing their income potential as being capped.
Over the last several years, drivers who must keep records of duty service (RODS), have also had to adapt to using electronic logging devices (ELDs). Electronic logging devices watch data from a vehicle’s motor and allow law enforcement to quickly and accurately check activity to ensure drivers comply with hours-of-service regulations. 2019 marked the full compliance phase of the ELD mandate, meaning all drivers who are required to keep records of duty service had to comply with the use of ELDs, with few exceptions. For some drivers, especially those who operate multiple vehicles, the ELD mandate complicates things. Further, ELDs aren’t perfect, and there’s always opportunity for fraud or even simple malfunction. Some drivers are choosing to leave the industry as a result.
Drivers continue to bring awareness and advocacy to their working conditions. From finding safe parking spaces to detention and delay issues and from HOS regulations to ELDs, working conditions are a continuous topic for improvement to support and retain our nation’s fleet, not to mention grow it to meet the boom in demand.
Pay for truck drivers is on the rise. Trucking firm CR England announced last April its third and largest driver pay raise in three years, amounting to over 50% in total increases. But is it enough to fill the vacancies? Increases in driver pay come with increased rates for shippers. As demand skyrockets with dramatic increases in e-commerce volumes, shippers understand the dynamics at play. While endless trucking companies increase pay for drivers, the big quit is on, and the search endures for more drivers to meet ever more demand. The need to meet pay demands is underway and will continue to be a factor in filling the shortage of driver rosters around the industry.
Driver Recruiting and Retention
As trucking companies, in-house fleets, third-party logistics providers (3PLs), and brokers struggle to meet the demand for drivers, a renewed focus on driver recruiting and retention is at hand. A recent paper published in ELSEVIER -Research in Transportation Economics shows that fleet operators who pay attention to driver retention may indeed save money in the long run.
Recruiting and retention in the freight transportation industry is slowly getting the attention it deserves. Many tactics to meet driver demand include:
Employing a driver or fleet management software. Leveraging this technology is a win-win and makes it easier for drivers to improve safety, vehicle maintenance, performance metrics, and communication.
Ensuring that onboarding, paperwork, and payment are streamlined. Making it easy for drivers to get paid is a tried-and-true method for keeping them.
Showing appreciation for the driver workforce. Recognizing drivers for safety, service milestones, and performance improves the culture and non-monetary benefit of driving with a certain freight transportation company.
Overall, as more attention is paid to driver recruiting and retention, these tactics may become the baseline in meeting driver demand.
There are no illusions - being a driver can be a hard job. However, the demand for drivers is here, and as the nuances of working conditions, pay, and recruiting and retention are addressed, there is an opportunity to diversify the driver workforce.
FleetForce is a truck driving school headquartered in Florida. It’s CEO, Tra Williams, was recently interviewed by Business Insider on the subject of the driver shortage and said that it’s not always true that drivers are subject to low pay or are poorly treated, and that this false narrative is helping to contribute to the problem.
"The problem is the perception that trucking is for people of low skill, low education, who are OK with low wages. All three are factually incorrect," said Williams. "Bridge the gap between perception and reality and on the other side, millions of young professionals will find a highly compensated career opportunity where they can literally be their own boss within a matter of months. Tell that story. Celebrate that."
Williams says that FleetForce’s graduates are competitive with college graduates in starting wages, with beginning salaries between $50,000 to $65,000 per year. However, graduates of FleetForce are able to accomplish this after only five weeks of training.
False perceptions also abound that truck driving is a “man’s job.” Au contraire say many progressive industry thinkers. While the Women in Trucking Association notes that women comprise approximately 10% of all truck drivers in the United States, that percentage is growing. Women are also proving to be safer commercial drivers than men. The American Transportation Research Institute has studied driver safety across genders, and it found women to be safer drivers across all categories, including crash causation, improper lane changes, and reckless driving.
In HNI.com, Account Executive Debbie Klein makes the case that “It’s time to start recruiting women truck drivers.” Klein argues that women are the next generation of drivers to “recruit today.” She recommends fleet operators and others in the industry to:
Advertise “women to women”
Develop circles of support for women drivers
Remember to keep family life and work life in harmony (good ideas for driver retention regardless of gender, age, or ethnicity), and
Tailor extras to women drivers like wellness guides, self-defense instruction, and blogs to read on the road.
Overcoming false beliefs is a campaign for us all to invest in to not only overcome the current driver shortage but more importantly to diversify the driver workforce.
In short, the demand for drivers is booming. We currently need to add 60,000 to 80,000 drivers to meet freight transportation needs. While we are experiencing a labor shortage across markets, there are specific factors at play beneath the surface of the driver shortage. Working conditions, pay, recruiting and retention, and false perceptions are a few essential factors being worked out as workers consider a career as a driver.