Long-Haul Driver Shortages in the Big Brother Era:
5 Ways for Fleets to Stanch the Bleeding

Class 8 truck drivers are a graying breed. According to American Trucking Association’s (ATA) 2019 Truck Driver Shortage Analysis, the average age of long-haul truckers is 46 and the average age of private fleet drivers is 57. The combination of driver retirements and industry growth over this decade will exacerbate already-acute driver shortages and cause supply chain disruptions. The ATA study indicates the current long-haul driver shortage is around 60,000 and projects a shortage of 160,000 by 2028. It appears that Millennials and Generation-Z don’t recognize the glamour of over-the-road trucking and are instead choosing other professions.

When a growing industry like trucking, with a surplus of steady, decent-paying jobs, cannot entice enough people to join, it’s natural to question what’s wrong. The following six points address some of the reasons why potential recruits are avoiding long-haul careers, or jumping ship mid-career:

  1. The Pay and the Grind – On average, long-haul truckers earn $60,000/year. The job, however, requires long stints on the road punctuated by brief periods at home. This lifestyle puts stress on families and frays relationships. Long-haul trucking is also a dangerous pursuit. According to the US Department of Transportation (2019), professional drivers are 10 times more likely to be killed on the job and nearly nine times more likely to be injured than the average worker. By comparison, oil rig workers average $75,000/year for a similarly family-unfriendly and dangerous job (but not nearly as dangerous as trucking despite memories of the Deepwater Horizon explosion).
  2. Certification – The expertise to back a big rig into a loading dock is one of many difficult skills a driver must master to receive a commercial driver’s license (CDL). The CDL also has a rigorous written exam and medical clearance. Many CDL aspirants drop out after realizing the rigors of long-haul trucking are not for them.
  3. Regulation – Drivers have historically been required to log their hours of service (HOS), reflecting adherence to government regulations, and present them at inspections. Government studies identify driver fatigue as the primary cause of class 8 crashes. 2020 Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations have tightened hours of service regulations. To further promote safety, the Electronic Logging Device (ELD) Mandate (effective December 16, 2019) specifies that all long-haul trucks must house these devices and use them to electronically record HOS. The stringent ELD prevents the fudging of logs, a common occurrence when drivers were on the honor system. Additional driver safety systems, like in-cab cameras, are used to monitor and record other driver behaviors. Although everyone agrees that safety is paramount, one of the traditional draws of long-haul trucking is the freedom of the open road and truckers’ image as 21st-century cowboys; these freedoms are diminished by ELD-generated legislation about when to sleep, eat, and rest.
  4. Perception – Bad truck driving is alarming to passenger car drivers because of the size/weight differential. Even though most truck drivers are safe, courteous, and professional, it’s the scofflaws who tar the entire group. The heroics of truckers on the front line during COVID-19 has rehabilitated drivers’ images. Still, those considering entering the field may themselves harbor negative driver stereotypes and choose another path.
  5. It’s a Man’s World – Females make up almost half the workforce in the U.S. but comprise just 6.6% of truck drivers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018). Resolving a driver shortage is even more difficult when half the population self-selects out because of an unfriendly work environment.
  6. Myopic View – Autonomous trucks are on the horizon and will almost certainly be operational within this decade. Some potential drivers may see a future of self-driving trucks taking their jobs. Rather than face obsolescence, people entering the workforce may choose an industry they view as providing safer job security.

Given all the downsides, both perceived and real, one might wonder why the driver shortage isn’t even more acute. The challenge is twofold: 1. How to encourage potential drivers to choose this path, and 2. How to retain drivers instead of losing them to other pursuits or other fleets. As table stakes, every good fleet should treat drivers with respect and get to know them. The suggestions below reflect a broader spectrum of changes to improve upon the shortage of drivers.

  1. Supply & Demand – One needn’t be an economist to understand that driver salaries will need to increase in proportion to the shortage of qualified drivers. Many fleets have already implemented hiring bonuses, higher salaries, and other monetary incentives.
  2. Incentivize, Don’t Bludgeon – Drivers who used to change jobs to avoid electronic monitoring are out of luck now that ELDs that record driver HOS are mandatory. Fleets that use additional in-cab monitoring should avoid a nanny-cam mentality, using the device to uncover and punish wrong-doing. Instead, enlightened fleets should use these systems to reward drivers, create positivity, and drive safely. Although monetary incentives for exemplary behaviors may seem in opposition to a fleet’s commitment to cost reduction, enhanced safety reduces expensive accidents and repairs. That is, rewarding drivers for safe driving is profitable for a fleet.
  3. Become an Activist – Even the most conscientious drivers may grouse about the rigidity of HOS regulations, especially under the unstoppable timer of an ELD. FMSCA has already built a loophole into the regulations. Drivers are allowed to extend the 11-hour maximum driving limit and 14-hour driving window by 2 hours when adverse driving conditions are encountered. Drivers are frustrated by other typical delays that don’t fall under the “adverse driving” rule but use up valuable time. By sticking up for drivers and challenging rigid rules, a fleet shows its commitment to change and its support for employees.
  4. Provide Vision & Career Path – Positioning employees to embrace the future rather than fear it provides the fortitude to roll with the technological punches. Well-funded companies like Embark, Daimler, TuSimple, and Waymo are already running on-road pilots of autonomous trucks. Yes, autonomous trucks will shake up the industry and directly affect these drivers’ jobs within the next decade. However, having autonomous vehicles will extend driving hours, likely allowing drivers to earn more money. Talking about the future, especially with new drivers, helps them construct a big picture mentality.
  5. Recruit – Female truck drivers aren’t born. They’re encouraged and trained. To set the stage, it’s important to create a welcoming culture that appeals to women; it’s simple to write about creating a new culture, but difficult to implement. The second challenge is recruiting the first few women. After that, momentum builds as the fleet gains a reputation as a female-friendly workplace.

Widespread shortages of goods during COVID-19 illustrate the importance of a smooth supply chain. Any weak links in the chain mean consumers and businesses suffer from out-of-stocks and missed deliveries. An adequate supply of truck drivers is vital to our economy. Taking deliberate steps to face the driver shortage head-on will help to ensure a right-sized driver pool and prevent the disruptions our country has already endured.