Why are there still not enough truck drivers?

Nelson CabreraFreight Trucking, General, General6 Comments

Shortage Adds to Delivery Delays


There is a shortage of truck drivers leading to logistical problems for virtually every business sector. The shortage of drivers has led to considerable delays which are extremely frustrating to customers. The history of the trucking industry has been churning and recycling drivers because it was a buyer’s market. Now the tables are turned, and it is a seller’s market. 

A revelatory pandemic for some truckers

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has made the job much harder with all the tests and checks that are necessary. Hence, some drivers have reconsidered their careers and decided that trucking is no longer a viable option for them. In the UK, Brexit has meant that there is no fallback plan as the European truck drivers refuse to come to the rescue. Not even the higher wages that are being proposed (sometimes as high as $80,000 per year) are enough to get the right numbers of truck drivers. 

In America, drivers are dealing with irate customers as further delays are reported. After the ships offload their cargo, the delays in picking it up cause problems throughout the supply chain in ways that are not immediately obvious. For example, scheduled places in the lines are lost. Plants are ready to load trailers but there are no drivers to pick up their products and send them to their destination. 

Changing working conditions in a dynamic market

The pre-pandemic conditions are still being followed and yet they are woefully inadequate to deal with the post-pandemic period when there is a shortage of truck drivers. For instance, the USA has a federally mandated working day that must not exceed 14-hours. So, even if some ambitious truckers wished to do overtime, the law would not permit them. This then becomes a health and safety issue for those drivers that are still turning up to work. 

Some drivers are coming up with ingenious ways of coping with the situation. Examples include sleeping in their trucks near the lots of the plants. Even then, there is no guarantee that the items they are waiting for will arrive. In addition, these working conditions may open the industry to expensive industrial disputes. It is extremely hard to plan schedules because they are constantly changing according to the demand for and supply of truck drivers. 

Part of a wider logistical problem that includes shipping

The shipping industry has been going through a logistical nightmare and the issues with truck drivers are merely making an existing problem worse. The freight business is dealing with backlogs that are simply unsustainable and there is no clear strategy for addressing this problem in the short term. Meanwhile, the burden on the attending truck drivers continues to intensify. 

Truck drivers are a sensitive and important part of the supply chain. It is estimated that trucks haul at least 7 out of every 10 domestic cargo shipments. Any problems in that sector are bound to have serious repercussions. Many fleets are reporting problems hiring truck drivers despite the offer of enhanced working conditions, especially in terms of increased pay. Meanwhile, consumer demand is exceeding expectations following the pandemic and shipments are continuously rising. The strong post-pandemic US economy is going to require all those truck drivers to ferry cargo. 

The trade unions begin to weigh in

As expected, there is concern from trade unions about the working conditions of their members as well as the future of an industry that is failing to attract staff. One of the largest of these unions is the American Trucking Associations. According to its estimates, it would require up to 80,000 workers to fill the gaps that are currently being experienced. Prior to the pandemic, the shortage was just over 60,000; now things are getting worse. 

It is not just the drivers that are in short supply. There are problems with investing in new equipment and capacity issues. This means that each trip can carry less than the ideal amount making shortages worse. For some, the puzzle is that trucking payrolls have rebounded better than expected following some worrying lows during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Labor Department Data in the USA for example indicates that the sector added 74,500 jobs between April 2020 and September 2021, bearing in mind seasonal adjustment. Indeed, overall unemployment in the trucking sector was 1.3% lower than in the pre-pandemic indicators of September 2019. 

Efforts to draw in truck drivers

The industry has engaged several tentative measures to retain truck drivers and to draw in new ones. Fleets of all sizes have been increasing their wages as well as offering generous bonuses. Indeed, some of the measures border on drastic including a proposal by the American Trucking Associations that would allow applicants as young as 18 to be assessed for entry. This would open the big rigs interstate niche which is currently restricted to drivers that are at least 21 years. 

Perhaps this might address the structural problems impacting the sector in terms of its labor profiles. It is estimated that over 30% of all current truck drivers are older than 55 years meaning that they are likely to be retiring in the next decade. Women are significantly under-represented in the sector, comprising less than 10% of all truckers. 

Better pay is not bringing in the needed drivers

Wage structures are being improved in sophisticated ways to attract new drivers and motivate the old among the ranks of truckers. For instance, the median annual pay for tractor trailer and heavy truck drivers was $47,130 in 2020 but currently the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes increases of up to 4% annually when compared to what it was in 2016. 

If drivers are still not being attracted, then there may be other problems that the industry must address. Some experts believe that the current working model encourages inefficiency. The methods and regulations are more than a decade old and are not equipped to deal with the flexibility that is required to service this industry in a post-Covid era when human resources are scarce. 

Wrapping up

There is a shortage of truck drivers across the globe. However, the problem is most pronounced in Europe and North America. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused significant attrition in the sector and yet there is increasing demand in recovering economies. Despite improving working conditions, there are still not enough truck drivers. This points to other structural problems such as old rules and an ageing workforce which may be worsening the problem. 

Nelson Cabrera
Nelson leads global business development efforts within ShipLilly and has been featured as a logistics expert in numerous publications, including SupplyChainBrain, The Bulletin Panama, Logistics Management, and the Miami Herald.

6 Comments on “Why are there still not enough truck drivers?”

  1. don marling

    Truck drivers have been treated bad for far to long,always referred to as “a dime a dozen” if you want truck drivers break out the silver dollars,it is a hard thankless job.I have been a truck driver my entire life.I don’t work for under $50 an hour

    Don Marling canadian log hauler

  2. Frank Kumwenda

    I have been applying for truck driving job for a long time all I get is negative feedback ” we are not hiring outside the US or we need experienced candidates” my question is how am I supposed to get an experience if you don’t hire me?

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