Who’s in the Driver’s Seat?

A new energy is going to be required to recruit and retain truck drivers and the industry is agitating for some fresh ideas to get more “butts” in the driver’s seat of America’s trucks. American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) statistics projected in 2015 that it would take hiring almost a million drivers over the coming decade just to maintain the existing labor force.

Although officially known as the “Driver Shortage” the issue has been a chronic PITA for the industry for decades. The sources of this malaise are as numerous as they are challenging to overcome, but for the most part, stem from the rapidly aging demographics of the current population of drivers who are leaving the industry, and the inability of said industry to attract and retain new drivers and bring them into the profession at a rate faster than attrition.

Demographically one of the largest groups to offer a potential pool of new talent are people from 18 to 25 years of age; a truck driver has to be 21 to obtain a CDL for interstate commerce, which naturally prevents those younger than 21 from entering the industry’s workforce--something that is effectively shutting down a path for new drivers to enter the profession.

Speaking at the 2018 Recruitment and Retention Conference held in Nashville February 22, American Trucking Association’s Chief Economist Bob Costello was upbeat on the prospects for shipping, freight rates and the American economy. However not so upbeat were his comments concerning the industry’s prospects regarding the challenge of finding and keeping enough drivers to keep pace with the U.S. economy, one that is accelerating and sustaining GDP growth at about 2.7% right the start of 2018.

Covering his presentation, Transport Topics reported that even though the trucking industry and the freight market in particular is booming, as a whole it will suffer if companies can’t find enough operators.


Finding “freight fantastic” and likely remain that way, Drivers, he pointed out, will be the biggest challenge: “At the end of the day, trucking’s only as good as the drivers of freight,” he quipped, noting that the shortage is again the industry’s front-and-center issue, with ATA reporting the shortfall at some 50,000 drivers recently.

Everybody Into the Pool

Even though the U.S. Department of Labor reports 10 million hold CDL’s, the pool of available licensed operators is actually much smaller—Transport Topics reports the actual number of available over-the-road drivers is somewhere South of 1.7 million qualified CDL holders, one, because although many drivers hold CDLs, quite a few are “of retirement age and therefore not qualified.” And two, when you factor in that many of the remaining qualified group are local-route drivers and off-road construction vehicle operators, the actual number is not, shall we say, all that “Robust.” Costello estimates that of the 864,000 drivers out there, only about half a million are available, and that is not enough to sustain the industry.

With about a half a million over-the-road drivers, in the for-hire truckload space the industry is short just under 51,000 drivers said Costello. “When you’re short 51,000 on a base of 500,000, that’s a lot—if things don’t change, and we continue up this progression, by 2026, we will be at 170,000 drivers short. If we get there, not only is our industry in a world of hurt, our economy is in a world of hurt.”

Youch! That Could Sting

It’s sort of like inviting more guests to a picnic where the food is already running out. In addition to issues related to attracting new drivers, many fleets are having trouble retaining a sustainable team of drivers. According to Transport Topics, The truckload fleet driver turnover rate in 2016 was 81%. Costello explained it could go as high as 90% this year noting “counterintuitively, turnover rates churn when the freight market is good because recruiters are looking for people to fill new positions that may offer more money.”

With better tax rates and few regulations, as well as a fast-expanding on-demand, personally-delivered consumer goods economy, the prospects for the success and growth of companies focused on the transshipment of freight over-the-road are intensely bright, but this is a light that could be severely dimmed if not enough drivers can be recruited to join the cause.

Fortunately, demand, seeking scarce supply, often results in pressure to boost, among other things wages and benefits – that is if the shortage requires skilled and qualified laborers. Can the industry boost wages and benefits, as well as address working conditions enough to attract and train new drivers from the an increasingly “millennial” labor pool?

To certain degree, business conditions may allow more fleet owners and operators to offer better salaries and smooth out some of the challenges and kinks related to the long distances and being on the road, away from home turf, for long periods. CareerCast, an outfit that monitors labor trends found Truck Driver remained on its “Top 10 List 2018 Toughest Jobs to Fill” report, with the demand outstripping supply. CareerCast, citing a skills gap and the after-effects of recession did note salaries (median approx. $42K annual) and an outlook projecting 6% growth in driver pay. Noting ATA and other available data, CareerCast said the industry would have more than 100,000 openings by 2026.


The industry is going to have to get serious about introducing the profession earlier to America’s youth creating more appealing career paths and eliminating barriers to access via apprentice level licensing and training schemes. The industry (along with heavy truck manufacturers) might consider a focused effort to inject the profession into community and other secondary educations systems.

It takes responsibility and skill to operate a Class-8 safely, and for many millennials being a non-corporate, independent professional may be an appealing proposition, a real foundation to build a career and financial success on and put their butts in the seats of America’s trucks.