“This year definitely feels different than driver shortages in the past,” said CPC Logistics vice president of operations and safety, Daniel Most. “It seems that no matter what you’re throwing at different markets, you’re just not getting responses.”
Most’s comments come as the trucking industry has come to an agreement that the overarching challenge of 2021, which will likely continue in 2022, is that of the professional driver shortage prevailing across North America.
As older drivers leave the industry–some retiring early due to the pandemic and some due to other factors–and as consumer demands grow exponentially, the current shortage of at least 80,000 drivers–according to American Trucking Associations–will only get much worse over the next few years if major industry-wide improvements are not made.
“I think that you can’t really talk about driver turnover, looking at the last two years, and not talk about COVID,” said Professional Driver Agency‘s director of operations, Scott Dismuke.
Of course, he’s right–the long-lasting shortage has been worsened by the pandemic era, as the shortage prior to 2020 had reached about 61,500. With longer work hours requiring drivers to be away from home for days at a time, on top of mask and vaccine mandates, driver turnover has reached new heights and companies throughout the industry are scrambling to incentivize qualified drivers to join their fleets–turning to pay boosts, new benefits, and sign-on bonuses.
Still, the pool of adequate commercial drivers is limited, and trucking companies are competing heavily to bring those truckers on board quickly in order to meet demands.
“I think what was interesting is…the shift from 2020 to 2021,” Dismuke continued. “I think in 2020, COVID actually kept drivers from jumping [ship] a whole lot. With the economy shutting down, everything froze.”
Because of the confusion regarding where the industry would go at the time, many drivers stayed put, hoping things would restart as usual. Because of this, trucking companies were not looking for many new drivers until the boom of e-commerce brought higher-than-ever freight demand.
“Once the economy really started opening back up at the end of 2020–and really through the first three quarters of the year–I think COVID had a different effect on turnover, because you saw companies really raising pay…you saw a lot of active recruiting,” explained Dismuke.
These efforts came directly after a period where fleets weren’t expecting to have to incentivize drivers, because so many people were worried about losing their jobs.
“I think we saw the other side of the COVID effect with drivers starting to jump [ship],” added Dismuke.
Now, drivers may be looking for more than boosted pay–although many carriers have raised income levels more than once throughout the pandemic.
“Many carriers raised driver pay in 2021,” said Conversion Interactive Agency vice president of marketing and training, Priscilla Peters. “However, in most cases, that didn’t move the needle as expected for driver recruiting. Quality of life for the driver and home time have become the piece of the driver recruiting puzzle where carriers are making adjustments that have impact.”
The bipartisan DRIVE-Safe Act is working as a boosted effort to bring incentives, training, and job opportunities for younger truckers, and to allow drivers under the age of 21 to be trained thoroughly and become able to operate commercial vehicles in interstate hauls.
“I think the two options [for a solution] are creating a program where individuals can move into this field at a younger age, where we’re not forced to try and peel them away as a second career option after they’ve already been doing something [else], or [targeting] more of those other similar-type positions,” said Most. Additionally, recruitment should focus more upon bringing in more military, female, and minority drivers into the industry, he added.
“Everything that you see is talking about what drivers are looking for,” he said. “It’s the home time built in with good pay…built in with the schedules that they’re looking for. A lot of the jobs that we hire for require unloading freight–that makes it even more challenging, and so it just seems like you have to really adjust the type of work that you’re hiring for in order to get the candidates to start to pile in.”