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How Trucking Companies Are Responding to a Critical Driver Shortage

A semi truck driving down a highway at sunset.

​Centerline Drivers, a recruiting firm in Burbank, Calif., that specializes in finding truck drivers, is on the front lines of a national talent shortage. So when a major drugstore chain that needed drivers in a remote region of the upper Midwest reached out for help, Centerline got creative.

"Our team looked around and found we had drivers available locally and came up with the idea to fly them out there, put them up and have them work until the job was done," said Shane Keller, Centerline's managing director of recruitment. "The drivers were dedicated to that company, and for six weeks moved the products the company needed to move."

The firm's Mobile Driver Solution program was born and quickly became a pool of more than 200 drivers who are willing to travel wherever companies need them.

Centerline Drivers is far from alone in its struggle to recruit new truckers. The industry is experiencing a severe shortage, which is expected to grow even worse over the next decade.

According to the latest data from the American Trucking Associations (ATA), the industry was short 60,800 drivers as of late 2018. Left unchecked, that shortage could swell to more than 160,000 drivers nationally by 2028, said Bob Costello, the ATA's chief economist. In a more recent survey, Centerline Drivers found that more than 50 percent of employers were having trouble hiring truckers.

"For many, this means they have trucks sit for days, which increases costs and quickly impacts a company's bottom line," Keller said. "The cost of having a truck sit empty is high. Our customers estimated the cost of a sitting truck is $500 to $1,500 per day, per truck. That's a huge number."

The reasons for the driver shortage are varied, but age restrictions and schooling issues top the list, said Costello, who explained that federal law prevents drivers who are younger than 21 from hauling freight across state lines, even though 49 states as well as Washington, D.C., allow younger drivers to get a commercial driver's license so they can drive large trucks.

"This means drivers typically don't start in the industry until they're older. The average new truck driving student is well into their 30s, meaning they are on their second, third or even fourth career path," Costello said. "There is legislation that would, with additional training and safety technology requirements, allow drivers ages 18 to 20 to fully participate in the industry."

Another obstacle is the requirement for drivers to pass pre-employment and random drug screenings. At the start of 2020, the federal government created a national database of drivers who failed drug tests, which has had a significant impact on drivers. While Costello said the ATA pushed for this requirement and fully supports it, the policy has impacted a number of drivers.

"Since the clearinghouse was opened, more than 70,000 drivers have been deemed ineligible, but just 12,000 have completed the process to return to duty," he said. "That's 58,000 drivers who normally could be on the road, but aren't" because they failed drug tests.

The COVID-19 pandemic made matters even worse. The public health crisis limited trucking opportunities to experienced drivers, as most schools closed since they were unable to teach truck driving via Zoom. Costello said about 40 percent fewer drivers were trained in 2020 than in 2019, which likely represents tens of thousands of drivers who could not enter the industry. "The good news is, as things return to normal, this issue should slowly resolve itself."

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Keller pointed out that due to the surge in e-commerce last year, there is an even larger demand for professional truck drivers to move products. Hence, drivers can call their own shots.

"This demand for drivers creates churn within the market as drivers seek to improve their income, benefits and home time, so they often make frequent job changes to better their individual situation," he said.

How Companies Are Attracting Truckers

To combat the shortage, trucking companies and recruiters are trying a range of tactics, including increasing pay and sign-on bonuses. But even though private fleet drivers have seen their pay rise in 2020 to an average of more than $86,000 a year from $73,000 (a gain of nearly 18 percent since 2014), it's clearly not just a pay issue, which means the industry has to find additional ways to attract drivers, Costello said.

Centerline Drivers is stressing benefits such as more control over their work decisions, the ability to be home on weekends as drivers gain experience and the industry's stability, Keller said. Recruiters also seek to match skills, shifts, equipment preferences and lifestyle to current open positions. Many offer local routes with reliable and steady hours as well as competitive pay, he said.

"Sometimes, it will mean paying drivers a little more or being more flexible with time on and time off, but it will help eliminate potential operational interruptions," Keller added.

Recruiters may also widen their pool of potential applicants. CFR Rinkens, an international shipper based in Paramount, Calif., that specializes in vehicle transportation, is trying to "attract a wider segment of drivers, including military veterans, women and younger drivers," said Joseph Giranda, director of commercial relations. "We post ads on job boards and use social media and competitive benefits packages to target those drivers."

Lauren Gast, director of marketing and communications at the Truck Driver Institute, a truck driving school with 11 campuses across the U.S., said companies are trying to attract more female truck drivers and the initial signs are positive.

"The trucking industry is working to adjust their image to become more favorable with a new demographic," Gast said. "If it can, it will be able to perform much better."

Centerline Drivers is also trying to attract nontraditional recruits. "[We're] looking at ways to attract more drivers from the military and bring more women into the industry," Keller said.

Protecting the Industry and Serving Consumers

Some analysts say that over the long term, truck drivers will be less critical as driverless vehicles emerge to travel the highways. But all agree that will take a while. Research shows that over the next 10 years, the trucking industry will have to hire around 1.1 million new drivers, or nearly 110,000 per year, to keep up with demand, Costello said. He added that currently, 71 percent of all goods are delivered by truck in the U.S.

"I don't foresee a future that does not include professional truck drivers," Keller said. "As further advances are made in the technology around automated vehicles, we will see safer roads due to decreases in fatigue and human error, but the need for a professional driver to be in the truck will not go away. Drivers are too important to the supply chain." 

Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.


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