This is the first of a series of articles exploring the American Transportation Research Institute’s top 10 critical issues in the trucking industry. In this article, we focus on the first two issues on the list: the driver shortage and driver retention.
With more than 70% of goods in the U.S. being transported via truck, it’s clear that the trucking industry is the backbone of the American economy. And commercial drivers are the backbone of the trucking industry.
“I don’t foresee a future that does not include professional truck drivers,” Shane Keller of recruiting firm Centerline Drivers recently told SHRM. “The need for a professional driver to be in the truck will not go away. Drivers are too important to the supply chain.”
That’s why the ever-worsening driver shortage – the top industry concern for the fifth consecutive year – is so worrisome.
In its most recent report on critical issues in the trucking industry, the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) painted a bleak picture of where the industry is currently in terms of drivers and where it might be headed:
- Today, the industry has a shortage of more than 80,000 drivers.
- That could grow to more than 160,000 drivers by 2028.
The American Trucking Associations (ATA) estimates that the industry will need to add some 1 million drivers over the next decade to replace drivers who leave the industry and keep freight moving. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the causes of the driver shortage, long-term solutions that the industry may pursue and what carriers can do now to attract drivers.
Why Is There a Driver Shortage?
Several factors contribute to the shortage of commercial drivers, including lifestyle issues, age requirements and the underrepresentation of women in the driver workforce.
Some of the top contributors identified by ATRI include:
- Growing freight demand driven, in part, by recent increases in e-commerce
- An aging driver workforce (the average age for over-the-road drivers is 46, and more than 27% of drivers are 55 or older)
- Drivers not initiating the return-to-duty process after failing a drug test
The ongoing pandemic has exacerbated the problem as many drivers left the industry due to COVID-related health concerns and the training and licensing new drivers has been delayed.
How Is the Industry Addressing the Shortage?
In its 2021 critical industry issues report, ATRI identified several strategies for addressing the driver shortage. At the top of the list are two measures aimed at opening the industry to younger people
The first is advocating for passage pf the DRIVE Safe Act, which would open interstate CDL eligibility to people aged 18-20 through an apprenticeship program. Though most states in the U.S. allow that age group to operate trucks, the federal government requires drivers to be at least 21 years old to cross state lines.
The second initiative is developing outreach programs targeted toward high school students and young adults to start building a younger workforce in the trucking industry. Currently the average age for drivers entering the industry is 35 years old.
A third strategy proposed by ATRI is advocating for the expansion of the EB-3 visa program to attract qualified drivers from other countries, which would permit drivers to remain in the U.S. permanently and work throughout the year, as opposed to the H-2B visa that applies to temporary jobs.
What Can Carriers Do Right Now to Attract (and Keep) Drivers?
The measures outlined above seek to address some of the structural problems causing the driver shortage, such as an aging workforce. But none of them offer a quick fix, which is why it is crucial for carriers to make themselves attractive as they compete to hire drivers from a limited pool.
And recruitment is only one side of the coin. Carriers must also take steps to retain the drivers that they do hire.
Speaking to WKBN News in September, Michael Kucharski of JKC Trucking summed up the reality that carriers face: “We are hurting. So, if a truck driver quits, he could call 20 truck companies right now, and, over the phone, all 20 will hire him instantly. We’re all fighting over the same drivers.”
It makes sense, then, that driver retention took the No. 2 spot on ATRI’s critical industry issues report.
Compensation is always a big factor when someone is deciding whether to take a job. And driver compensation has increased in recent years. While compensation may attract drivers, however, it’s not necessarily enough to prevent driver turnover, which can cost carriers thousands of dollars in lost opportunities and new driver recruitment and onboarding.
So, what can carriers do to make drivers want to hire on, and stay once they do?
Related: Modern Methods to Retain Drivers
Be Transparent and Give Drivers a Voice
Electronic logging devices, dash cams, trailer trackers – there are all kinds of equipment that carriers either must put in trucks (as in the case of ELDs) or opt to put in trucks to increase fleet safety and efficiency.
Often, drivers feel like they don’t have a voice in equipment decisions that directly affect how they work, according to a survey by WorkHound. Even worse, drivers say that management often doesn’t even explain the rationale for adopting a particular piece of equipment.
“Motor carriers usually have strong reasons as to why equipment decisions are made, but drivers don’t often understand the thoughts behind those decisions,” WorkHound CEO Max Farrell told American Trucker.
Carriers should seek driver input – and that input should be taken seriously – when making decisions that affect drivers’ day-to-day lives. That’s not to say that drivers should control the decision-making process, but they should at least be represented.
Moreover, when new equipment is implemented, carriers need to build polices detailing the reason for the implementation, how it benefits the company and the driver, how data will be used and so on.
By giving drivers a voice and being transparent about why decisions are being made, carriers show that they see drivers as valued stakeholders in the organization.
Download the guide: Dash Cam Policy Checklist
Give Drivers Respect and Appreciation
In 2020, the Commercial Carrier Journal (CCJ) asked drivers what they dislike about their job. The No. 2 response was: “It’s a thankless job – nobody respects truckers or appreciates what we do.” The survey also asked drivers why they think carriers are having trouble finding drivers. More than half of the respondents said: “They don’t respect drivers and the job they do enough or treat them as part of the team.”
Responses like those show that making drivers feel like valued members of the organization can be a strong recruiting and retention tool (not to mention, the right thing to do).
Things like incentive programs that recognize safe driving, verbal praise during meetings, driver wellness initiatives and career development opportunities can go a long way toward making drivers feel that their hard work is appreciated, and that they have a future in the industry.
Farrell of WorkHound told American Trucker that ride-alongs – including both office staff riding with drivers and drivers shadowing staff – can help bridge the divide between the office and drivers by creating mutual understanding about what each side does.
“Ultimately, the thing that stood out to us is that trucking is still a people business and that relationships ultimately matter to drivers,” he said. “In order to facilitate that, we have to make sure that drivers are being respected and get treated well.”
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