The driver shortage stretches back a quarter century, and lately a run-up in freight demand, staggeringly high turnover rates and waves of baby boomer retirements are compounding the problem.
The American Trucking Associations (ATA) figures companies need about 60,000 drivers, a number that could top 100,000 in just a few years.
Trucks move almost all of the food and other items Americans purchase, and the shortage of drivers is driving up shipping rates.
“It’s not like these folks are making horseshoes,’’ said Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “Trucking is an absolutely essential, critical industry to the nation, to everybody in it,’’ Spencer said.
Trucking companies are responding in three basic ways: recruiting drivers who don’t fit old trucker stereotypes, making the job easier and raising pay.
“It’s certainly a natural market reaction whenever there’s a shortage — pay goes up, and we’ve seen that,’’ said Bob Costello, chief economist for ATA.
Costello said trucking companies boosted pay sharply last year. Gordon Klemp, president of the National Transportation Institute, figures that increase was close to 10 percent on average, which would make average driver salaries crest at $60,000 by his estimates. And Costello says truckers are demanding more than good pay.
“If you’re not getting a 401(k), health-care, paid time off, you need to get a different job, because you can get all of that,’’ Costello said.
Some trucking companies sweeten the deal with bonuses for signing on, referring people, or just staying with a company. Some have begun offering free, online college tuition for drivers.
But even with the recent pay hikes, drivers make less now than they did in the 1980s, adjusted for inflation, Klemp said.
The way truckers can be treated by shipping companies is another huge issue.
Most long-haul truckers are paid by the mile, not by the hour. And some routinely spend hours waiting to load or unload at shipping facilities. That wait time cuts straight into drivers’ income. Thomas J. O’Conner, president of YRC Freight, said his company and others are taking a harder line with shipping customers who tie up their drivers.
“If you’re tying up my driver or my equipment, then it’s going to be harder for me to justify dedicated equipment to your business needs or charging what I charge you today,’’ O’Connor said. “It’s going to cost you more.’’
But O’Connor admits that improving pay and alleviating headaches won’t solve the driver shortage.
Attracting new drivers
“I think as an industry we need to be more creative and resourceful to attract and retain top-notch people,’’ O’Connor said.
And there’s one huge group of people in particular the industry needs to attract: women. Currently about 8 percent of long-haul drivers are female.
The trucking industry’s efforts to increase that percentage seem to be working.
“More women are coming into the fold, a more diverse population,’’ said Angela Thornton, an African-American woman who’s training for a driving job with the trucking company Wilson Logistics. “It’s starting to become more flexible, and more welcoming.’’
But Thornton, whose father is a trucker, said that while companies may be more welcoming of women, minority and LGBT drivers, aspects of the trucking industry are not.
Safety a Concern
Long-haul truck drivers work and live in their trucks. There aren’t many places to park a semi, so drivers are tied to truck-stops for food and truck bathrooms, night after night.
“There are safety concerns, especially if you’re a solo female driver,’’ Thornton said.
This is the kind of thing trucking companies hate to hear, given the importance they place on recruiting women. But companies have an advocate in Ellen Voie, president of Women in Trucking.
“We work with the truck stops on lighting and fencing and reporting to them a truck stop that’s not safe,’’ Voie said.
Voie estimates the percentage of women who are long-haul drivers has doubled in the past dozen years, and she expects it to take off sharply in the near future.
Truck driving has changed dramatically since the 1970s. Many new trucks have automatic transmissions and the type of safety features expected on a new car: cameras and computers that watch lanes, look out for obstacles and even hit the brakes automatically sometimes. Modern technology also allows companies to track drivers meticulously, which annoys some veteran truckers.