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What’s Behind the Driver Shortage In Trucking?

Combine the unprecedented demand for moving goods and what could appear to be high levels of compensation for a job done, and it could seem like driving a truck is one of the top jobs out there. Plenty of truckers do love their job, yet the American Trucking Associations (ATA) claims that they’re seeing a shortage of more than 80,000 truck drivers in the United States. How can this be? Where are all the truckers?

 

This isn’t a job for everyone and never has been, but with so many new drivers coming on board every year paired with such a high turnover rate, this can’t just be about the special breed of folks that can make it as truckers. There’s more at play here.

 

Factors Behind the Shortage

 

Yep, we’re still talking about this, and with good reason. The numbers have shifted, but the reasons that countless authorities are lamenting driver scarcity haven’t changed too much. And just one news report never gives the full story. Some paint the issue as a lack of reliable drivers, while others make a strong point about internal problems that drive good workers away. So let’s dig into the reasons why even with 450,000 new commercial driver's licenses being handed out every year, there’s still a need.

 

While opinions vary, more often than not we’re hearing experts say that this perceived shortage isn’t because of a lack of drivers, but a lack of retention. Especially in large-scale long-haul companies–the very ones who claim the worst shortage–the average annual turnover rate has been above 90% for decades now. Clearly, there’s a story there. Here are a few of the reasons why so many truckers have become part of the Great Resignation.

 

Job Conditions

 

There are plenty of obvious reasons that truck driving presents health risks, from unavoidable long hours of sitting, irregular sleep cycles, and low availability of healthy food options, to infrequent or unavailable facilities for personal care. And being out on the road is a risk in and of itself––truck drivers face a 10x greater likelihood of being killed on the job. Time away from family and friends can bring personal turmoil. Add to that common but growing issues that slow down work capacity and reduce efficiency, paired with unrealistic goals and expectations. Then there’s the fact that the very trucks that drivers need to do their jobs can often be in short supply. For those drivers that are out on the road, it’s increasingly difficult to find safe parking areas for rest or vehicle care, and easy access to bathrooms is at a record low. All the while there’s a push to deliver in a specific time frame or risk penalties.

 

Desiree Wood, president of Real Women in Trucking puts it this way: “There is no truck driver shortage. It is indeed a pay shortage and work conditions issue.” That’s just one opinion, but it’s not uncommon, and it deserves some investigation.

 

Aging Workforce

 

Estimates vary, but the most quoted average age of American truck drivers falls somewhere between late 40s and late 50s. According to industry numbers, 1 in 4 truckers are 55 or older. While that might be below typical retirement age, these are the decades when health problems begin to rear up and the combination of rough work conditions, increased demand, and sub-par compensation–to name a few concerns–could prompt talented drivers to go elsewhere with the skills they’ve built and the working years they have left. The folks who decide to retire from the industry leave a vacuum of experience that can be hard to fill. Part of this discussion centers around the fact that legally, truck drivers must be 21 or older. So some industry experts say that if companies could hire younger drivers, right out of high school, they could fill the need. But plenty of others argue that if conditions were better and turnover rates were brought down, the age factor wouldn’t be the issue it currently is.

 

Policies

 

Lots of long-time drivers were originally attracted by that out-on-the-road independence that a career in trucking promised. And admittedly, that’s the romanticized image that many of us probably have of the work. But that’s only part of the picture. And more often than not, technological advances and policy changes mean more micro-managing and a perceived big-brother feel. Tighter schedules and added oversight are the realities of a more demanding marketplace, but they haven’t come with higher compensation. A clear line can be drawn to the passage of the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, which officially deregulated the US trucking industry. Up till this point, trucking was reportedly a lucrative job, with median wages landing at about $110,000 annually when adjusted for inflation. Now contrast that with 2020 median wages of about $47,000. Union contract stats have also fallen. And today’s drivers encounter countless rules and regulations surrounding drive time and rest time that often don’t easily fit into common scenarios and routines.

 

We aren’t here to take sides on political policies or hold up one system over another, but we are here to say that these folks who are keeping the country running matter, and that a steep drop in compensation for increased work just doesn’t make sense. It also won’t help to attract and retain a steady workforce, which is what’s at the heart of this discussion.

 

Interpersonal Failings

 

While the trucking industry has made some efforts to increase diversity behind the wheel, it can be a hard road to climb. For women drivers, especially, the lack of respect that many truckers feel is compounded by the often misogynistic attitudes that persist. From inadequate or unsafe parking and bathroom accommodations to downright harassment and/or assault, women out on the road face a lot. Pair these risks and stressors with a general lack of appreciation and compensation, and it’s easy to see why some decide that trucking just can’t give them back what they put into the job.

 

There are other situations too, in which truck drivers of all stripes are treated without respect by employers, customers, and others. And you can find plenty of personal accounts of times when training isn’t handled well either. This regular onslaught of incivility can take a serious toll on new and seasoned drivers alike.

 

Industry Practices

 

Companies often promise high pay rates along with freedom and independence, but don’t fully deliver. Whether intentionally misleading or not, classification of drivers as independent contractors is a counterproductive move, as it pushes vehicle costs onto the driver, making financial success seem even more elusive and the likelihood of resignation or retiring higher. “Independent” drivers are often under a company’s thumb with no autonomy in decision making, all without enjoying the compensation or benefits afforded to employees. And because independent contractors are generally paid per load, compensation can’t account for bad weather, traffic, or other common situations that could slow down delivery. This last point can be contentious for employees too. And then there is the ongoing debate between hourly and salary. All in all, drivers could feel that they’re getting the raw end of a deal and decide pretty quickly that the job just isn’t worth what they’re giving to it.

 

Factors that Can Turn the Situation Around

 

There’s a lot going on here, and any one of the above factors could be enough to break ties of loyalty, leading a driver to walk away from a trucking career. It’s time to work harder at stemming that resignation tide.

 

Validation and Respect

 

During the beginning of the pandemic, folks everywhere praised the virtues of truck drivers working hard to keep the nation moving by staving off shortages. But those attaboys are usually fair-weather feelings. At the same time, the majority of the country does not live by an inland or ocean port––the goods they need and want are only available because of a trucker’s work. That fact needs to be held up and fully appreciated, and then result in more respect paid to these folks who make modern life possible for all of us. Today there’s not one industry that trucking doesn’t touch––the general attitude in society should really reflect that level of indebtedness.

 

If that was truly felt by the majority of truckers in the way they’re treated by folks both within and outside their industry, then they’d more than likely put up with some of the less desirable factors of their work. But add everything up and throw in a lack of respect? Well that’s the proverbial straw right there.

 

Better Compensation

 

There’s a lot tied up in the simple statement that higher wages would be appreciated. We’re talking about governmental policy and long-standing company practices. But however it can be accomplished, it’s obvious that higher and more comprehensive pay, greater benefits of all kinds, and a focus on high-quality equipment can go far to help retain drivers. Pair these tangible benefits with the intangibles of respect and feeling valued, and you have lots of reasons for folks to stick around and make a career out of this. That’s how you build loyalty.

 

Industry Shifts

 

Trucking officials point out a litany of reasons why they can’t find and keep good drivers, generally pointing the finger at drivers themselves or at systems far beyond companies’ control. Framing the problem as a shortage of drivers makes it easy to take this stance. As a quick solution, some industry leaders want to reduce the minimum commercial driving age from 21 to 18 and improve funding for the commercial driving license process. While this move would certainly broaden the pool for potential drivers it might not necessarily be a good thing, for the industry in general, or for retention more specifically.

 

On the other hand, if the issue was framed as a retention crisis, there might be less finger pointing and less reason to keep the hiring mill churning. Instead, there could be more of a focus on how to resolve the problem in a way that benefits all parties involved, from keeping current drivers on the payroll to using targeted methods to find and train the next generations of drivers. A combined focus on both present and future needs could go far to improve conditions and attract new drivers. 

 

Zinc Stands Behind Truckers

 

In the end, a lot of this discussion boils down to demand––we’ll always need hard-working drivers to transport the nation’s goods. We’d love to see drivers feel valued and to get the respect they deserve, across the board. But until that day comes, truck drivers could face a hard road ahead. Just know that whatever life brings, the Insurance for Truckers and Zinc Insurance teams are here for you. We can offer you great trucking insurance, sure, but we’re also happy to chat. We love getting to know our clients, and aim to offer measured advice where we can. Reach out today to learn more about us and to score a free quote.

This blog post does not provide insurance advice and is intended for information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional insurance advice from a licensed representative. Never ignore professional insurance advice because of something you have read in this blog post. Contact your licensed representative if you have any questions about your insurance policy.
  • Josh Freet

    ZINC's Contractor Insurance Expert

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