Fillin' shoes

| December 01, 2006

Industry struggles with ongoing driver shortage.

Trucking companies are constantly looking to hire new drivers, a lot of drivers.

But does this need mean there is a driver shortage?

Whether there is a driver shortage or not depends on how you define shortage. But whatever it’s called, the constant demand for drivers is the biggest problem facing the American trucking industry.

The American Trucking Associations calls it the worst labor shortage in the history of the industry. Last year ATA published a report it commissioned from Global Insight, which predicted that the current driver shortage of 20,000 could mushroom to 111,000 by 2014.

The study predicted that if current trends continue, the supply of new truck drivers will grow at an annual rate of 1.6 percent over the next 10 years, but it also predicted economic growth will demand an increase of 2.2 percent (or 320,000) in new drivers. The demand doesn’t stop there, said the study, because another 219,000 drivers must be found to replace those 55 and older who retire. By this reckoning the need is really 539,000 – or 54,000 a year for the next 10 years.

“Truckload executives today will give you a uniform consensus of what the No. 1 problem in the industry is – drivers,” says Chaz Jones, an industry analyst with Memphis-based Morgan Keegan, an investment bank. “Then maybe fuel and then engines. But fuel surcharges are there to help, and with engines there are really no surprises. You know what is coming and when, so you can take pro-active measures and position your fleet.

“The driver issue is the No. 1 problem, whether it is recruiting, retention or pay. Companies struggle with those problems constantly.”

Why the shortage?
The shortfall of drivers is blamed on a number of problems.

Not only are drivers, on average, getting older and retiring faster than ever, ATA points out that “growth of the middle-age groups that are critically important to truck driver employment (35 to 44 and 45 to 54) will be flat or declining over the next 10 years.”

And fewer of their children are becoming drivers.

“You don’t have drivers coming into the industry because their father, grandfather or uncles were drivers so much any more,” says Chad Still, recruiting manager for America Central Transport. “You can’t drive over the road until you’re 21, and with any degree of good parenting, most 21-year-olds have been put on a career path. We are getting a lot of second career people, older people, retirees and ex-military. I’ve even seen someone with a Ph.D. and an ex-bank president change their lifestyle to become drivers.”

Also, there may be reluctance among young people to embrace the gypsy lifestyle of long-haul trucking, the most affected segment of the industry.

Other reasons for the shortfall are the loss of older drivers during the recession after the turn of the century, a loss still felt because many of those drivers never returned to the industry; and, more recently, the pressure of post-9/11 security measures. Tougher hazmat endorsement standards have many drivers simply giving up driving hazmat, and the introduction of a security card needed by all drivers working ports may have a similar effect, in both cases weakening these two specialized driver pools.

Chief among the problems is pay. ATA and trucking company executives have suggested that significant pay raises could solve the problem by attracting more drivers to the industry and better competing with other industries.

A booming economy – goods hauled by truck will jump from 9.8 billion tons in 2004 to 13 billion tons in 2016, ATA predicted last year – is not helping the shortage situation even as it helps trucking companies earn more. When the economy thrives, says ATA, trucking tends to lose driver jobs to construction and manufacturing.

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