Earlier in the pandemic, many were worried about the continuation of America’s truck driver shortage, especially as the health crisis drove up the demand for essential product delivery significantly. As expected, the United States initially saw an impact on timely product shipments to fulfillment centers and for last-mile deliveries.
As recently as April, shoppers were in a “necessity mindset” in regards to food, drink, and tobacco products, which showed an 85 percent year-over-year increase. The number of total online orders was up by 21% percent. Sporting goods was up 86 percent, toys and games–60 percent.
Industry experts were saying last-mile delivery was hit hard by non-licensed industry entrants, as well as older drivers who feared contracting COVID-19 on the job. As big-rig driving requires a CDL, the lack of trained drivers available to hit the roads was hurting the extremely necessary replenishment of fulfillment centers as demand continued to rise.
But now, with a sharp decline in the health of the American economy, the highly-scrutinized truck driver shortage is over–for the time being. With the country’s recession well under way, the amount of freight needing to be hauled within multiple trucking sectors has heavily decreased.
Before the coronavirus was at the forefront of everyone’s minds, the American Trucking Associations claimed the trucking industry was about 60,000 drivers short due to retirements out-pacing the entrance of sufficient new drivers into the industry.
While these statistics still hold true, the country’s current economic climate has brought an even larger impact to the trucking industry as a whole.
“The fundamentals of why we had a driver shortage did not go away,” said Bob Costello, Chief Economist for ATA. “Demographic issues, age, gender, lifestyle issues [remain]. But, for the moment, what has changed is [that] the demand side of the equation has fallen significantly.”
Although some areas of trucking, such as grocery store restocking and medical supply delivery, have continued going strong, others have not. Flatbed and tanker operators have struggled with a large drop in overall demand.
According to a recent DAT Truckload Volume Index, refrigerated, dry van, and flatbed loads hauled by truckload carriers dropped 19% in March and 8% in April on a year-over-year basis.
One major issue that was originally of major concern was the closing of State Driver licensing Agencies. With the supply chain relying on new commercial truck drivers, and the trucking industry “accountable for moving 71 percent of all freight across the country,” these closures were detrimental at the beginning of the pandemic, said the CVTA.
These shut-downs left “many future drivers unable to obtain commercial learner’s permits and commercial driver’s licenses,” said CVTA president, Don Lefeve. “Abruptly halting the process of getting 25,000 to 40,000 new truck drivers trained, licensed, and on the road impacts a number of significant industries and the nation’s supply chain.”
Although the current need for new truckers has declined, there is still the obstacle of major changes in training for those who are entering the industry, Lefeve explained.
“You can’t have that many people in the truck anymore,” he said of social distancing guidelines in regards to training instruction. “We will not be able to ramp back up to full capacity because we have to train under the Centers for Disease Control guidelines, social distancing, [and] wearing masks, which limits the number of students you can have truck at a time. It’s going to be a slow, hard, slog.”
Lefeve believes the number of industry-entrant drivers obtaining their CDLs will drop by 40% in 2020.
Luckily, training has been impacted by new technology, such as simulated driving systems, becoming mainstream in the process. “It’s an option that more and more schools are looking toward,” Lefeve explained. “There’s no substitute for getting behind the wheel and getting comfortable in the cab, but simulators are a fantastic way to aid in training.”
In regards to those who are attempting to find work as a truck driver, those who are motivated and experienced–and who have solid safety records–will have a much better chance at finding work, said DriverReach CEO, Jeremy Reymer.
“Any of the truck drivers that are unemployed, let go, furloughed…they’re going to find employment. There is employment out there,” he said. “But, I think companies are more selective now. If you’ve got a good safety record and a good attitude, you’ll be fine.”
Although the demand for drivers is currently lower than usual, Costello says the shortage will return as soon as the economy starts healing.
“When the economy gets back, I fully expect the driver shortage to come back, maybe even worse than before,” he said. “We don’t know how many people will take this opportunity for people to leave the industry.”