During a recent seminar held by Riker Danzig Scherer Hyland & Perretti and Sobel & Co., one major challenge that was raised focused on the topic of driver shortages in transportation.

With increasing demands in the trucking industry coming as a result of increased economic activity, the corresponding decrease in available drivers is being cited as one of the top challenges facing the sector today and into the foreseeable future. 

Sometimes broad assumptions about trends like this are made based on anecdotal information without substantiating facts, but in a survey conducted by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), it was confirmed that motor carriers and others in the sector are very concerned about the lack of qualified drivers available to move our country’s freight, making this shortage the top ranked issue for the first time in more than a decade. The study went on to report that if the trend holds, the shortage of drivers could grow to an estimated 175,000 by the year 2026.

A recent article authored by Jennifer Smith in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Trucking Companies Are Struggling to Attract Drivers to the Big-Rig Life” further underscores the worsening situation.  Writing on April 3, 2018, she noted, “Trucking companies eager to hire more drivers but facing a slim pipeline of new recruits aren’t finding much to encourage them at the James Rumsey Technical Institute in Martinsburg, W.Va. Enrollment in commercial-driving courses at the school dropped to its lowest point in about 15 years this winter, a signal that the industry’s efforts to sell workers on truck driving haven’t gained much traction.”

Why the shortage?

Ironically, one contributor to the dilemma is the rapidly growing e-commerce industry which is drastically increasing the demands for drivers. As more people shop online, more individual deliveries are required. We have shared many insights in previous blog posts and in our e-newsletter regarding trends in the retail world – from technology, to drones, to robots, to global competition – and it would be short sighted to ignore the impact of the changing retail landscape on transportation, most notably the shift from bricks to clicks. 

But there are other factors.

Even as demand is rising due to changing consumer shopping habits, interest in a career as a truck driver is waning. As one blogger in the industry wrote on Trucks.com so succinctly, “The 110% turnover rate leaves one wondering who in their right mind would even consider a field where a camera watches your every movement, the regulations are stifling, the lack of respect from all levels of social contact (i.e., law enforcement, shippers, etc.), the lack of courtesy on the highway not to mention construction zones, traffic backups, inclement weather, fueling, breakdown time, receiving delays of at times up to four to six hours  and now restricted mileage for those who are paid per mile by the new log requirements of counting all time from start to finish…in other words the bottom line for drivers is that the incentive for those who were once inclined to be away from home for long periods of time to earn a living are no longer there.” 

But the challenges cannot be ignored or swept under the rug. As Ron Leibman, co-chair of Riker Danzig’s Transportation and Logistics Practice reminded us, the motor carrier industry moves 10.5 billion tons of freight across the United States annually and 600 million tons of freight through New Jersey, with 70.6% of all freight tonnage moving via truck nationally and 75% of all freight tonnage moving across the state by truck. All of this activity makes trucking a major contributor to the nation’s economy generating $676.2 billion in revenue. But the backbone of the industry is represented by the 3.6 million heavy duty truck drivers and 3.5 million other truckers who are essential to the process.

What can be done?   

Until (and if) driverless trucks become the norm, and with the shortfall reported to be 48,000 drivers in 2015, the need for capable, expert truckers will continue unabated. It is estimated that 890,000 new drivers need to be hired between 2015 and 2026.  This statistic begs the question, “What changes need to be made to attract the numbers needed to meet the projected industry growth of 33%?”

First of all, changes must be made quickly to enhance the experiences of those engaged in the transportation sector. This would include improving roadside accommodations, offering competitive salaries and finding ways to provide more flexible schedules as well as addressing other negative aspects.   

Secondly, these changes need to be successfully communicated to potential drivers.  To recruit the best talent, leaders in the industry must reframe the image/brand of trucking and highlight the benefits of pursuing trucking as a profession.  They need to show progress and demonstrate a sincere commitment to the truckers. 

With millennials pouring into the workforce and the evolution of the ‘gig economy’ which is fueled by a desire for more independence and flexibility, the trucking industry might eventually present a viable alternative for these employees (or independent contractors). But industry decision makers need to be prepared to offer substantive changes, including more time at home, better treatment, pay increases, better use of technology, loosened government oversight, outreach to nontraditional markets (to better reflect cultural, generational and gender diversity)  and an improved infrastructure. In addition, the image of truck drivers needs to be quickly upgraded to make the position attractive to a more diverse audience.  Ad campaigns and the use of social media can help to re-brand the entire industry if serious consideration is being given to make essential changes.  

Working in tandem with federal and state authorities can help push the changes and boost recruitment.